O'Driscoll finds that home is where the art is

Refreshing style brings new lease of life for Leinster's totemic captain
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The Independent Online

Timing plays a large part in the winning of the Heineken Cup, and if ever a side peaked too early in a competition of nine matches' maximum duration, it was Leinster last season. On their travels they smashed Bath in the pool and Toulouse in the last eight, only to crash out in a home semi-final against, of all teams, their Irish rivals Munster.

As the Leinster captain, Brian O'Driscoll, puts it: "We were capable of some magnificent rugby and we were capable of playing some crap. And you can't play crap in a semi-final, it just doesn't work that way."

So, in a decade of trying, Leinster remain the only one of the principal Irish provinces yet to reach a European final - Munster, of course, are the title- holders, and Ulster won the sponsorless version in 1999 - which is a glaring omission on the O'Driscoll CV. Not that the supremely gifted centre needs cups and medals to confirm his place in rugby's pantheon.

But an equally frustrating semi-final defeat by Perpignan in 2002 at the same Lansdowne Road venue as the excruciating defeat by Munster last spring makes O'Driscoll's experience of the Hein-eken to date akin to a pint in a quart pot.

"We're massively envious of Munster's success and their achievements," he says. "You look at their history over the last four or five years and it's their level of consistency which has eventually won them the competition. That's where we've lacked.

"You can get better in the competition as you go on, and peak in the final if you're to win it. We peaked in the quarter-final, which isn't quite good enough."

O'Driscoll is also Ireland's captain - their capture of a second Triple Crown in three seasons in 2006 meant a little more silverware and a little less space on his sideboard - so we can assume an element of political correctness when he insists any Irish winner in Europe is preferable to one from England or France or wherever. "I think the team that manages to beat Munster won't be far off winning the competition," he says.

But suggest to O'Driscoll that Munster's greater success rate is down to team-bonding in the bars of Cork and Limerick - a squad spirit beyond that of Leinster's capital-based crowd - and the 27-year-old Dubliner's eyes simultaneously narrow and gleam beneath the familiarly skewwhiff hairdo.

"I've never been in the Munster training camp so I don't know how high their level of craic is. But we're certainly not afraid to have fun; the camaraderie is building on previous years.

"In the couple of games we have played as a full side this season the going got tough and the boys pulled together and that's a good sign, that you want to fight for your team-mates and not let them down."

O'Driscoll is "feeling pretty fresh and fit" after the extended summer's rest enjoyed by all Ireland's leading players. The Magners League match at the Border Reivers on Friday night was his third of the season, and the previous weekend he was at full pelt in a notable 27-20 win over Munster at Lansdowne Road in front of a 27,000 record crowd for the competition.

O'Driscoll scored a try and clattered Munster's captain and second row Paul O'Connell with a wrecking ball of a tackle. The Argen-tina fly-half Felipe Conte-pomi is Leinster's link bet-ween pack and backs, and they are loaded with Irish Test caps plus the A-team tiro Jamie Heaslip at No 8.

After a couple of years of "going through the motions", O'Driscoll says that training is a renewed pleasure in Leinster's second season under the Australian coaches Michael Cheika and David Knox - which, in passing, does not reflect all that well on the previous incumbents, Declan Kidney (Munster's cup-winning coach), Matt Williams and Alan Gaffney.

This and the consistent speculation that O'Driscoll will make a big-money move to a French club after next year's World Cup in France gives the impression that he is, in the vernacular, giving it one last lash with Leinster.

"I stayed [this season] for a couple of different reasons. When David and Michael came in I gave it an opportunity to see what it's like, because I had got a bit stale. I felt that I was learning again, not only as a player but as a captain as well. I really liked the brand of rugby we were playing.

"And I guess it's a kind of romantic notion of sorts that you stick with the likes of Leinster and win [the Heineken Cup] that way. I think it would mean so much more to me winning something with Leinster than it would with Toulouse or Stade Français or Leic-ester or whoever it would be; the giants of Europe.

"To myself and my friends and family in Leinster it would be an enormous feat and something to remember, rather than just come back in years to come with a medal and no one to talk to about it."

How it works: Who, when and where

THE GROUPS

POOL ONE: Benetton Treviso, Perpignan, Wasps, Castres.

POOL TWO: Edinburgh, Agen, Gloucester, Leinster.

POOL THREE: Sale, Stade Français, Calvisano, Ospreys.

POOL FOUR: Cardiff Blues, Bourgoin, Leicester, Munster.

POOL FIVE: Ulster, Toulouse, London Irish, Llanelli Scarlets.

POOL SIX: Biarritz, Northampton, Overmach Parma, Borders.

ROUND ONE

Fri 20 Oct: Agen v Edinburgh, 19.30; Ospreys v Sale, 19.30; L Irish v Llanelli Scarlets, 20.00. Sat 21 Oct: Treviso v Perpignan, 13.00; Leinster v Gloucester, 17.30; Calvisano v Stade Français, 13.00; Bourgoin v Cardiff Blues, 15.30; Ulster v Toulouse, 13.35; Borders v Overmach Parma, 14.00. Sun 22 Oct: Wasps v Castres, 13.00; Leicester v Munster, 15.00; Biarritz v Northampton, 15.00.

ROUND TWO

Fri 27 Oct: Castres v Treviso, 19.30; Llanelli Scarlets v Ulster, 19.30; Sale v Calvisano, 19.45. Sat 28 Oct: Overmach Parma v Biarritz, 13.00; Stade Français v Ospreys, 13.35; Gloucester v Agen, 15.00; Northampton v Borders, 15.30; Perpignan v Wasps, 16.30; Munster v Bourgoin, 17.30. Sun 29 Oct: Edinburgh v Leinster, 13.00; Cardiff Blues v Leicester, 15.00; Toulouse v L Irish, 16.00.

ROUND THREE

Fri 8 Dec: Bourgoin v Leicester, 19.30. Sat 9 Dec: Overmach Parma v Northampton, 13.00; Calvisano v Ospreys, 13.00; Borders v Biarritz, 13.35; Llanelli Scarlets v Toulouse, 15.00; Gloucester v Edinburgh, 15.00; Castres v Perpignan, 15.30; L Irish v Ulster, 15.30; Leinster v Agen, 17.30. Sun 10 Dec: Cardiff Blues v Munster, 13.00; Wasps v Treviso, 15.00; Stade Français v Sale, 15.00.

ROUND FOUR

Fri 15 Dec: Perpignan v Castres, 19.30; Ospreys v Calvisano, 19.30; Ulster v L Irish, 19.30. Sat 16 Dec: Treviso v Wasps, 13.00; Toulouse v Llanelli Scarlets, 13.35; Leicester v Bourgoin, 14.45; Northampton v Overmach Parma, 15.00; Agen v Leinster, 15.30; Munster v Cardiff Blues, 17.30. Sun 17 Dec: Edinburgh v Gloucester, 13.00; Biarritz v Borders, 13.00; Sale v Stade Français, 15.00.

ROUND FIVE

12/13/14 Jan: Treviso v Castres; Wasps v Perpignan; Agen v Gloucester; Leinster v Edinburgh; Calvisano v Sale; Ospreys v Stade Français; Bourgoin v Munster; Leicester v Cardiff Blues; L Irish v Toulouse; Ulster v Llanelli Scarlets; Biarritz v Overmach Parma; Borders v Northampton.

ROUND SIX

19/20/21 Jan: Castres v Wasps; Perpignan v Treviso; Edinburgh v Agen; Gloucester v Leinster; Sale v Ospreys; Stade Français v Calvisano; Cardiff Blues v Bourgoin; Munster v Leicester; Llanelli Scarlets v L Irish; Toulouse v Ulster; Northampton v Biarritz; Overmach Parma v Borders.

QUARTER-FINALS

30/31 March/1 April

SEMI-FINALS

20/21/22 April

FINAL

20 May (Twickenham)

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