By Andrew Baldock, PA Rugby Union Correspondent
Brian O’Driscoll has backed Leinster to end Exeter’s reign as European champions on Saturday.
But O’Driscoll also predicts “a really, really close game” in the stand-out fixture of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals.
Leinster are among only four teams to have successfully defended the European title, which former Ireland captain O’Driscoll helped them achieve in 2012.
Exeter are now chasing membership of that exclusive club, while victory for Leinster at Sandy Park would leave them two wins away from a record fifth European Cup triumph.
“Exeter are a different team now that they have one (European Cup) in the bank. Your mentality changes and there is a confidence that comes with that,” O’Driscoll told the PA news agency.
“But while you are feeling like that, you have got to build on it and get as many wins as you can.
“That’s what we managed to do between 2009 and 2012. We felt like a great team, we felt very difficult to beat and we managed to accumulate three (European titles) in four years, and you have got to ride that crest of a wave as much as you can.
“I played against Exeter in their first European game in 2012.
“We were supremely confident, saw Exeter in our group and thought ‘first game back in next season’s competition, we will have a bit of that’, and we were lucky to scrape by (9-6) at home in beautiful sunshine.
“They just had something about them, immediately. They got your respect from the off, and it hasn’t shocked me, seeing their meteoric rise from there and what they have managed to achieve.
“You say this internally, not externally, that ‘we want to be one of the great European teams, and we have the capability. We have got the squad and age profile to be at this for five, six, seven years, competing in semi-finals, finals, every single year’.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) April 5, 2021
“I think it is going to be such a tight game.
“I went against Leinster in the PRO14 final (against Munster), which was absolutely crazy, so I am going to go – in a really, really close game – with Leinster getting it done.”
Away from the scrap for a semi-final appearance, it promises to be a final audition for some British and Irish Lions contenders ahead of head coach Warren Gatland announcing his squad to tour South Africa early next month.
And while O’Driscoll is intrigued by the midfield battle between players like Henry Slade, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw, he also acknowledges Exeter number eight Sam Simmonds’ powerful Lions claims.
Simmonds won the last of his seven England caps three years ago, and he has so far been overlooked for a recall by head coach Eddie Jones during a season that has seen him score 14 Premiership tries and produce blistering form.
“Sam Simmonds has had a point to prove for a number of months now,” O’Driscoll added.
“He is playing the rugby of his life, but he is not getting any love from England, so maybe he’s that bolter that Warren Gatland is looking for.
“I don’t think any of us would be really shocked if ‘Gats’ decided to go with Sam Simmonds, because he plays the sort of brand – that fast, hard, running rugby – that will be suited to the terrain in South Africa.”
BT Sport is the home of the Heineken Champions Cup with every single match live. Watch all the action from the quarter-finals, including Exeter Chiefs v Leinster Rugby, on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th April from 2:45pm on BT Sport 2.