Friday 23 March 2018

Ready to join the greats

Leinster can earn their place in Europe's elite by beating Northampton

Brian O'Driscoll scores for Leinster against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup semi-final and has been one of the driving forces behind their charge for a second crown.
Brian O'Driscoll scores for Leinster against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup semi-final and has been one of the driving forces behind their charge for a second crown.
David Kelly

David Kelly

"I don't want to achieve immortality through work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying."

-- Woody Allen

Brian O'Driscoll was looking forward to spending Saturday afternoon in front of the TV. But that was not necessarily how it ultimately panned out.

Instead of wallowing languorously on the couch as his beloved Manchester United eased to a record league title triumph, Leinster's talisman had to sit bolt upright with his swollen knee swaddled for protection.

He may have punched the air in delight when United's ascent to English football's perch was confirmed but he dared not dance a jig.

Besides, as he watched Alex Ferguson immediately project his mind from this success to Barcelona, so too were O'Driscoll's thoughts already drifting elsewhere.

Not only was he concerned about his preparedness for this Saturday's Cardiff showpiece, he also shared Ferguson's coruscating desire to scratch the itch of perceived European under-achievement.

Ferguson wants four; O'Driscoll just wants more.


Leinster's sole triumph in 2009 fulfilled the promise of a talented and hungry squad, belatedly exorcising several seasons of under-achievement.

The first success at this level defines a good team; winning it again would propel Leinster to the ranks of the truly great.

O'Driscoll is not the only Leinster player to feel this burning desire coursing through his body. Jonny Sexton yesterday amplified the feeling within the squad.

"Yeah, that's it," he readily agreed when asked about the significance of claiming the Heineken Cup for a second time, to join Toulouse (four) and two-time champions Leicester, Wasps and, of course, Munster, as multiple winners.

"I suppose a lot of teams win it once and never win it again but the great teams go on and win it twice or even more times. You look at Toulouse, Leicester, Munster, these are the teams which go hand in hand with the Heineken Cup and if we can win on Saturday I suppose it would put us in that category."

Ferguson is rightly proud that United have matched the feats of Barcelona and Inter Milan in boasting three European Cup wins but he bristles each time he details the serial conquerors of European football's greatest prize.

For United remain firmly in the slipstream of the four achieved by Bayern Munich and Ajax, AC Milan's seven and Real Madrid's nine. And then there is Liverpool.

Just as Munster trump their fiercest rivals in Europe, by two to one; so too United's Euro exploits are dwarfed, five to three, by Liverpool.

"The expectation for this club in the Champions League is always extremely high," said Ferguson. "And though we have done well over the last few years, we are still not where we should be.

"I look at other great European clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Ajax and am always envious. I still have that jealousy of what they have achieved.

"This present set of players have good experience of what you have to do in Europe. But we have to progress quickly now if we want to get to the level of those other clubs."

Just minutes after he was hoisting the trophy on their Murrayfield lap of honour on that unforgettable May day two years ago, Gordon D'Arcy was asked whether the reality of the triumph had sunk in. He couldn't quite say, but he already knew what came next.

"Jeez, you even start looking towards next year already, trying to win it again," D'Arcy said as the winners' medal still jangled in his trousers pocket.

They fell short last season in Michael Cheika's swansong season but this term, bequeathed much of the erstwhile coach's extraordinary transformation of the province, Joe Schmidt has transformed both the scrum and Leinster's innate attacking talent.

The team's motivations have been necessarily transformed since '09 too and mental parallels with Munster are not entirely invalid. In the aftermath of their 2006 Heineken Cup final success, Declan Kidney informed his squad that they had managed to shrug off the label of being rugby's equivalent of Colin Montgomerie, the perennial bridesmaid fated never to mount the winner's rostrum at a Major.

The determination to rid themselves of the dreaded tag of 'nearly men' had energised their route to 2006 success and proved sufficient unto the task thereof; henceforward they needed added motivation to drive on from that triumph.

"It was, I suppose, a desire to be a very good team," according to Munster captain Paul O'Connell. "Teams that win the competition twice are very special teams."

They did win a second trophy and, notwithstanding this season's travails, they remain an acknowledged European heavyweight. Leinster are within touching distance of emulating them.

"It's actually a very different mentality now," O'Driscoll confirmed recently.

"Winning it makes you hungrier for another. By winning it a second time you copper-fasten the fact you're a quality side.

"When you win one, after all those years of trying to win the holy grail of European rugby, you think, 'Thank God we've done it at least once.' But that feeling passes very quickly. You don't want to be a flash in the pan."

When Michael Campbell won his US Open in 2005, such was his gratitude upon finally winning a Major, his over-wrought sense of satisfaction had virtually guaranteed that he would never win another.

When Padraig Harrington won his maiden Major however, he remembered Campbell's faux pas. "This is my first," he declared with the confidence of knowing that more would follow.

And more inevitably did. Great champions go forth and multiply.

Armed with these twin ambitions over the next two weekends, Leinster and Manchester United will be joined in communion by their driving desire to ascent the altar of true sporting immortality.

Irish Independent

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