James from @RugbySaracens had the honour of sitting down with BT Sport pundit Brian O’Driscoll at BT Sport Towers to talk about the Champions Cup and what that tournament means to a rugby legend. He also gave views about the expansion of the Pro 12 to become Pro 14 and Ireland’s chances of being selected to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. BOD was friendly, warm and very easy to talk to. A good nun story too.
Looking forward to the Champions Cup
We started by discussing this season’s Champions Cup, much of which is being broadcast live on BT Sport this season ahead of exclusive coverage from the 2018-19 season. Brian kicked off with the suggestion that, “The Champions Cup standard bearers are again Saracens this year.”
He viewed Irish hopes positively, saying “From an Irish perspective, it was great seeing a couple of Irish teams get to the semi-finals having not having had anyone in the knockout stages the previous year. I think Leinster are probably the best of the provinces at the moment, but write off Munster at your peril. They came so far from where they were from the start of last season. If you had told them semi-final of Europe and final of the Pro 12 they would have probably gone for that.”
“Those two provinces in particular are in good shape, then you look at the other English teams. I’m looking forward to seeing if Exeter can kick on to show more in Europe. Wasps are back in the mix. Leicester have recruited well and will be in the hunt. I’m looking forward to Europe again.”
It’s all about Europe
It was clear that Brian’s three Heineken Cup wins with Leinster (the former guise of what is now the Champions Cup) cause him to reflect wistfully about the tournament but still looking forward to all the fabulous matches ahead this season. He said, “It’s been a strange summer because of the Lions went on until July there hasn’t been so much of a rest from rugby but when you start talking about it then it really gets the juices going again. We’re in for a treat.”
“I have a great affinity for the Champions Cup, even though its slightly modified now from when I won it, with four less teams and it’s probably harder to win it. I think you look at that competition and some of the quality of it, and just because I have such good memories of it, you really look forward to watching it. Domestic leagues are fine and I keep an eye on the Premiership and Pro 14 to see the teams but when it comes down to it, club rugby, it’s all about Europe.”
No one flukes Europe
“Internationally, standards internationally were so great. November internationals were the least important but they are still very exciting. Everything’s heightened internationally with November, Six Nations were incredible, Lions Tours, World Cups, phenomenal: you’re spoilt for choice with internationals. With clubs, to really get excited for me it’s about Europe because you want to pitch yourself against the best players in Europe and the only way you get to showcase how good you are is to take on the Clermonts, the Toulouses, Toulons, Sarries, Wasps, Munster, Leinster. And when you beat them all, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be taken from that. You are the best. No one accidentally falls into winning Europe. No one flukes Europe. It just doesn’t happen.”
Invited by to review the pools and respective chances of the teams to get into the group stages, Brian commented, “I think it’s going to be the same teams, I really do.”
Mighty clashes in Pool 2 and beyond
Given my @RugbySaracens focus, I asked first about Pool 2 (Clermont, Saracens, Saints and Ospeys). He commented that, “Pool 2 has Clermont and Saracens but also Ospreys and Northampton. They all have real strength, though I worry about Northampton a bit this year with Montpellier taking Picamoles, their player of the year comfortably last year. They were poor in the first half of last season and they have a lot to prove. Ospreys you never know with Ospreys but you feel with both Clermont and Saracens would be confident of beating them so you would expect with both those to come through.”
“Other pools are strong too: Exeter, Glasgow, Leinster and Montpellier in one group! Looks at Montpellier’s back line of new signings: Picamoles at 8, Pienaar at 9, Cruden at 10 and Jan Serfontein at 12. That’s quite a line-up. And Frans Steyn is still there at full-back. And Nagusa on one wing, oh Jesus, that’s a team. You want to get them at home and early and get a home win and hope they are out of it by the return away in round 6.”
The power of BOD
We spoke before the first four rounds’ games had been given confirmed dates and times. I asked if that meant he was trying to influence the fixture list through his role as a pundit with BT Sport. He said that he certainly hoped so! He joked that he’d be doing his level-best to make sure that happened. I note that this is exactly what happened! Brian’s influence is clearly strong. Leinster play Montpellier at home in the RDS Arena in Round 1 on Saturday 14 October.
Three-peat for Saracens?
Brian backed Saracens but didn’t underestimate the challenge. “Sarries have won back to back Europe. Toulon won three in a row. A few other teams have won back to back so you can be sure they will want to win and someone like Sarries will probably be talking about four in a row. You’ve got to win three first obviously but I’m sure teams with high standards like theirs will be wanting to create something, to catapult yourself into a different group of teams with each star that you get. It means a lot to me that Leinster have three stars and Munster have two, and that they had two before we had any.
Even the nuns have a European habit
Brian said, “I was at a funeral last night and a nun came up to me. She expressed her condolences and I said thanks very much. Then she said, ‘but just to let you know, I’m Munster rugby.’ I said, ‘ah, I should have known, because there were only two stars on your dress instead of three!’. She was speechless.”
It was fascinating to hear about how much it means European rugby means to him. He commented, “There’s still that parochial, tribalism to your club and the pride that you get from have three European wins is, because it is, I know how much hard work it took and how much it means to us.”
But how is different is it now experiencing European rugby as a fan not a player? Brian observed, “I don’t feel the same disappointment and devastation as when I was playing, but I’m sad but life goes on ten minutes later. I won’t live it or 24 hours, or 48 hours or a week, I just park it now. I’ve got a life. I want the team to go well but it’s not the be all and end all.”
On the expansion of the now Pro 14
We also spoke about the Pro 14. Brian was again happy to express his view, “I like the introduction of the Pro 14. It needed a shake-up and not having to wait another year for it is smart. It was getting a bit stale and bringing the South African teams into it changes the dynamic of it. I think that’s got to be a good thing. It’s got a lot of people taking about it which is a good starting point and then they have to deliver a good product. I think bringing in two good sides like the Kings and the Cheetahs are, I think will definitely enhance the competition and bring the standard up.”
“It will enhance the clubs’ ability to compete in Europe. The introduction of the South African teams will mean they discover a brand of rugby that they will never have played against before: it’s different, like it’s different how you play in New Zealand, or how you play in South Africa. It’s hard physical, uncompromising and fast. You have to adapt your game to be able to deal with that and find a way to win. There will be a teasing out period in year one but I would be very excited if I was in one of the Pro 12 teams going down to play there.”
On Ireland’s chances of hosting the 2023 World Cup
We reflected on the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland and the chances of Ireland also then landing the 2023 Men’s Rugby World Cup. Brian observed that, “The Women’s and Men’s world cups are two different scales: the men’s is considerably bigger but successfully hosting the women’s one this year certainly won’t detract from delivering a really good pitch. You would hope it would be favourable towards showcasing what we could be doing in 2023.”
Brian is the official Bid Ambassador for Ireland 2023 and the vote to decide between Ireland and rival bids from France and South Africa takes place on 15 November. Brian said that, “We won’t hold our breath but it comes down to the vote. It’s a private ballot. You don’t know who’s voted for you. You don’t know who’s voted against you. All you can do is put your best foot forward. In fairness to the IRFU, it has double Government support, Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Government. Everyone has been incredible in their efforts to try and put together this exceptionally good pitch. If we don’t get it off the back of that it won’t be for lack of trying. That’s all you can really do.”
The prospect of a Men’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland is very enticing. Brian commented, “Imagine seven weeks of partying in Ireland! We’d show everyone a good time.”
On his BT Sport Rugby punditry
This is Brian’s fourth season as a pundit on BT Sport. He said, “I think I enjoyed my third year a lot more than my first and second because I think I discovered my voice, how to say things and I got a bit better at it, I think. I was winging it a bit in the first couple of years. The transition from player to pundit isn’t easy. The only training you can really get is it by doing it. It’s a steep learning curve for the first couple of years, particularly in co-commentary, whereas I think I’m a bit more comfortable now in how TV works, my cues, when I’m coming in, when I’m adding something, when not to speak, when to wrap up quickly on the count. All those sorts of things, even the earpieces and getting used to directors talking while you are making a point. All of that talkback, it is like, ‘what did you say?’ and you’re just answering a question. All of that takes a bit of time, it does, and I think I’m a lot more comfortable with that now.”
“I think we’ve got a really good team here at BT Sport. We’ve got some very knowledgeable pundits and everyone delivers something slightly different, which is good too. I think Ben Kay is very detailed and I think it works very well for the public that subscribe to BT. Austin is Austin and I’m very careful how many compliments I give Aus, but he’s very impressive, particularly in commentary. And Lawrence brings this huge passion and understanding about what the big occasion really feels like. I think everyone has their own different skill set and it all ties in well.”
BT Sport pundit Brian O’Driscoll was speaking to RugbyUnited.
Watch exclusive live coverage of FIVE Champions Cup games this weekend on BT Sport:
Friday 13 October Ulster v Wasps (kick-off 1945hrs)
Saturday 14 October Racing 92 v Leicester (1515hrs) and Exeter v Glasgow Warriors (1945hrs)
Sunday 15 October Saints v Saracens (1730hrs) and Ospreys v Clermont (1730hrs)
You can view the latest advert for the upcoming season, starring Tottenham’s Dele Alli, here:http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX0OXyuHvZM
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