The presence of just one Irish side — O’Brien’s Leinster — in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup next April is evidence of a dip in the fortunes of the provinces who had dominated the Heineken Cup for much of the previous decade.
Extravagant sums are being poured into the game in France, and some of the top English clubs are eager to expand the salary cap in operation there to keep pace, but O’Brien believes the financial factor is being overblown.
“Yeah, in my head it is. I often think, and I said it before, that any of our provinces can mix it with the best on our day. I know they have world-class teams or whatever but so do we. And world-class players. We can beat those big boys.”
Leinster face an improving Bath side at the Aviva Stadium in the last eight. Win that and their reward is likely to be a semi-final in France against Toulon who host Wasps in the quarter-final 12 months after beating Leinster comfortably at the same stage in Stade Felix Mayol.
“To be honest with you, we want Toulon. I would love to have them even now. I don’t care where we have them either, home or away, but we said it before that you have to beat them all to win it anyway.”
Leinster showed signs of a return to top form in January but the preceding four months, though blighted by a crippling injury list, brought with them considerable criticism for the team’s performances.
O’Brien, convalescing from his second bout of surgery in the one calendar year, could do little about that and he took issue with the direction of the brickbats more than the content given they were aimed mostly in the one direction.
“I thought it was a load of shite to be honest,” he said at the launch of Guinness’ “Money Can’t Buy Experiences” campaign. “Because everything was on Matt, in my eyes looking in on it. Everything was being put to Matt and it was unfair at times.
“If you look at the way some of the players have come into form over the last month or so and compare it to two months ago — they’re playing a lot better. It’s not because anything has changed really, it’s because players have gotten sharper at training, into a game.” That said, the knockout stages of Europe will be a crucial testing ground for O’Connor and his team.
However O’Brien points out that Leinster should be operating much closer to full tilt come April than they have been thus far.
Had things been different and O’Brien accepted Toulon’s lucrative contract offer last year, he would be just another of those international howitzers stationed in Bernard Laporte’s arsenal. Clearly, his heart remains with Leinster, but that love is not unconditional.
“Ideally, I probably would (be a one-club man) but I’ve said it before, you have to look after yourself too.”