Brian O'Driscoll rails against claim Ireland teams picked with 'Leinster bias' 9 months ago

Brian O'Driscoll rails against claim Ireland teams picked with 'Leinster bias'

"I think it’s a bit easy for people to jump on that."

It is the Wednesday before Ireland take on Italy in the third round of the 2022 Guinness Six Nations and Brian O'Driscoll is being pinged with team selection questions, and enquiries if our men's rugby team can reach a World Cup semi-final, next year.

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O'Driscoll, as an Irish talisman, captain and now firmly in the pundit camp, is well used to dealing with queries of this sort. He has heard variations of most questions from inquisitive rugby minds.

It is fascinating, then, to see him ever so slightly riled up when a question arises of a perceived 'Leinster bias' in the current Ireland set-up. Over recent games, there have been anywhere between 10 and 13 Leinster men in the starting XV, with plenty more on the bench.

O'Driscoll, who spent the first half of his professional career playing in the shadow of Munster will have heard the 'Leinster bias' talk - and seen the social media flow - before, so he is ready for it. Duly, he launches straight in.

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Brian O'Driscoll celebrates, after Ireland won the 2014 Six Nations title, with former teammates Shane Horgan, left, and Ronan O'Gara. (Credit: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE)

'Leinster are the dominant team right now' - Brian O'Driscoll

"I don’t understand the whole bias thing," O'Driscoll begins.

"Bias from who? From Andy Farrell who is English, Paul O’Connell who is Munster, Simon Easterby who was born in the UK? I just don’t understand.

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"Gone are the political days of the 70s and 80s, and you might argue maybe parts of the 90s, that’s no more. There’s a confidence and bias in Leinster because a lot of those players understand the lines of running and what Ireland are trying to do. They play a very similar game-plan and, in fact, were the instigators of that type of game-plan in Ireland, and have been at it for four or five years, of different evolutions of it.

"Confidence comes from what players do on Saturday but it also comes from doing it every single day at training and we don’t see that but I know that and having played with players and seen other guys cracking at training where they aren’t able to take messages on board or they can’t deliver very quickly after receiving information. So you learn an awful lot about players the more time you spend with them.

"Bias isn’t around what jersey they wear it’s about what they’re capable of doing. And if they’re a better option that’s better for the team. It’s not like Andy’s come from a provincial set up or where he’s worked with players before. I just don’t buy that.

"Were people saying there was a bias in the 00’s when Munster were getting to finals and semi-finals of the European Cup and having six or seven out of eight in the pack because they were beating European teams up? No, because they were the dominant team.

"It's just the same now at the moment with Leinster. And I think it’s a bit easy for people to jump on that but if Leinster continue to deliver performances and individuals continue to stand out it’s very hard not to pick them."

Gael Fickou of France is tackled by Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw of Ireland. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)
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Centre call - Bundee, Garry, Robbie and James

As a man that played most of his pro career in the outside centre role, with occasional positional switches inside [even if he still wore No.12], Brian O'Driscoll has a particular interest in who plays in the Irish midfield.

"For me," he says, "everyone playing well, I think the best centre partnership is still Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose.

"Bundee has been very good but there has been a couple of things, if you are trying to split hairs because his performances have been very good. But yet if you look at the Welsh game a couple of times he tucked and went himself when he could have thrown an alternative option. Because he’s so powerful and strong he still gets over the advantage line, he still makes two or three yards and it doesn’t look particularly negative. But then the alternative option; if he throws the pass around the corner or he takes the slightly more dangerous route, it’s higher risk but it’s very high reward where it feels like try time.

"Coaches will have picked up on that. I looked at both the French and the Welsh game a lot and particularly the Welsh game, there was just a couple of times that if passes were thrown the scoreline could have been even bigger. There’s not much between all of these players, that’s what I’m saying, when you split hairs it’s those little things that can count when games are tighter.

"It’s not in the games against Wales when you win by 20 points, it’s when there’s nothing between the teams and there’s hardly any opportunities but you get one ands you go the tough route, rather than playing it safe and you get rewarded and win the game versus not winning the game.

"Garry, for me, is the obvious choice 12. He’s playing really well at the moment and defending really well, making really good incisions, coming into the game in the second half really well against France having been starved of possession in the first half. When Robbie is fit and well he’s been brilliant the last year. I continually go back to that when everyone is playing well but the margins are very small."

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Michael Lowry of Ulster dives over to score his side's third try against Northampton Saints. (Photo by Paul Harding/Sportsfile)

Chances still there for young players

Given that the Italian game falls in the middle of two long breaks in the championship, Andy Farrell will most likely turn to many of his first-choice men to start this Sunday's game.

Should Ireland win that, they will go full strength for the England and Scotland closers, and they would surely not dare go to New Zealand for a three-Test tour without bringing most of their big-hitters. Has a chance been missed, then, Brian O'Driscoll is asked, to properly blood players like Nathan Doak, Gavin Coombes, Rob Baloucoune and more?

"They still have a chance to play their way into it," O'Driscoll argues.

"I guess all you can do is look at the guys who are playing well at the moment. And does Doak get in ahead of Craig Casey at the minute? I’m not sure he’s done enough to justify usurping him. Coombes, you know... it’s an incredibly competitive back row. Is Coombes a possible tourist in that 33-man squad to the World Cup? Of course he is. But you look at the quality of some of the other players that are there, and consistent performers as well. Nick Timoney even went well recently.

"So I think there’s a chance for these guys, they're not cast aside just because they’re not getting game time during this Six Nations doesn’t mean they’re not going to feature in the World Cup. You know Baloucoune played in November, but how do you not play Mack Hansen again on the back of some of his performances? Andrew Conway has played very well for Ireland, so you can’t play everyone.

"And it’s a combination of allowing guys to get a sequence of games to build their confidence up because they’re the number 1s, but then making an integration process of other players that are drip fed in if they do get their chances.

"It’s a bit of an unenviable task, you’re damned if you do damned if you don’t, but I think he’s done it his way and consistently, and that’s why we shouldn’t expect wholesale changes this weekend."

Brian O'Driscoll Today, legendary Irish rugby player and Guinness ambassador Brian O’Driscoll has teamed up with them to bring the GUINNESS GIVEAWAY to fans across the country. (Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

The Guinness Giveaway offers rugby fans the chance to win incredible prizes, bringing the magic of the Guinness Six Nations to any viewing occasion, whether in stadium, in pub or at home. For a chance to win, enter at sixnations2022.guinness.com