BRIAN O’DRISCOLL IS in good shape for Leinster’s Heineken Cup clash with Northampton this weekend, according to Leinster coach Matt O’Connor.
O’Driscoll had to be withdrawn from Ireland’s recent game with New Zealand after picking up an injury, but commenting on his fitness ahead of Saturday’s big game, O’Connor said: “He’s played three tests. He’ll be fine.”
Leinster’s squad in general are looking good fitness-wise, with no new injuries to report.
“We’ve had a good training week,” O’Connor said. “The test boys have come back well. We’re in a good place.”
In contrast, their opponents are likely to be missing a number of players through injury and O’Connor acknowledges that while they will be weakened, picking up an away win is still likely to be an extremely tough task.
“It’s hard to replace those games. You can’t replace world-class blokes with world-class blokes, so that leaves them a little light. But at their place, they will be very hard to beat.”
He also rejected suggestions that the Saints have a slight advantage by virtue of the fact that they play the first of their two upcoming games against Leinster at home.
“You have to play them — it doesn’t matter what the order is. We need to go over there and be as good as we can be and I’m confident if we bring that, we’ll certainly be in the game.”
O’Connor is more familiar than most with Northampton’s strengths and weaknesses, having encountered them on a few occasions during his time as Leicester coach, including last May in the Premiership final. And the Leinster coach believes they have improved considerably in recent times.
“They’ve picked up a handful of world-class players since then. They’ve tried to evolve their game. They’re certainly trying to play more rugby. We’ve still got to deal with their strengths, which will be the drive and the scrum and the momentum that creates for them — they’ve got smart enough guys to execute beyond that.
“I don’t know if [the scrum is] stronger — it’s certainly been effective — they’ve done well against Castres, they’ve done well against Ospreys. They haven’t lost too much there. Whether they’re as dominant as the other blokes, we’ll have to wait and see. But they’re certainly a dangerous group across the field.
“They play to their strengths,” he added. “They try to get dominance up front. They’re scoring tries, they’re winning games and they’re playing good rugby.”
One player, in particular, who they’ll need to watch out for is George North, though O’Connor believes the Welsh winger can be stopped.
“You’ve got to limit the opportunities they get. They are pretty direct. They will play to the space. If you don’t give them that initial go forward, you can probably deal with them in the wider channels. But once they get momentum, they’re a very good side.”
Should they fail to stop North and co and suffer defeat, Leinster would be left in a tenuous position in the group, but does the Australian coach feel they can afford to lose one of their upcoming games against the English side?
“It’s hard to say. It depends on other results. We’re certainly looking to win both games. The situation may change post-Saturday, but if we play near our potential, we’re good enough to win the game and that’s the challenge for us — making sure we’re at our best.”
One man who could have an impact on proceedings is referee Nigel Owens, and O’Connor has considerable respect for the Welsh official.
“He’s probably the best around at the moment. He was pretty good in the All Blacks game. He’s refereeing very well, he’s clear in what he expects and he communicates and manages the game very well. I’d imagine that won’t be an issue for us.”
Additional reporting by Sean Farrell