MUNSTER and Lions captain Paul O’Connell admitted that Heineken Cup semi-final opponents Leinster are “the guys you hate to lose to most”.
As the countdown to Saturday’s Croke Park showdown picks up pace, O’Connell revealed the hype surrounding a game which has captured the imagination of a nation is hard to escape.
Given the number of international team mates facing off, O’Connell is predicting a titanic struggle.
“When I was growing up, the guy I hated to lose to most was my brother. After what we’ve achieved (with Ireland), we’ll be friends for life but they’re also the guys you hate to lose to most. And I’m sure they’re saying the same thing.”
He was keen to talk up Michael Cheika’s side who have lost the two meeting previous meetings of the provinces in the Magners League.
O’Connell said: “Leinster are mentally very strong … they had a fabulous performance against Harlequins and I have a lot of respect for that win away from home against a very competent side.
“Their work around the break down is top-class — normally you target one guy in a team who is very strong around the break down but they have five or six guys very strong in that area, slowing down ball, poaching ball and getting penalties and it’s something we have to be very aware of.”
O’Connell admits that when he was younger, he didn’t “put much store in experience” but that assertion has changed with age.
He smiled: “It’s only when you get older that you realise how important it is. For the players on the pitch, a big game is a big game and both teams are used to handling the hype.”
Like most Irish teams, Munster have always revelled in going into battle as underdogs, but that is no longer the case. The bookies quote them as short as 1/3, but O’Connell is adamant it will have no bearing on Saturday’s exchanges.
He said: “We keep a cap on over-confidence because we know we can be as bad as any side in the Magners League or the Heineken Cup on any given day if our heads aren’t right.
He backed up his argument with examples. “We’ve seen it happen twice against Ulster and against Connacht and a good few other times like Montauban at home. We know how bad we can be when the head isn’t on and it’s something we keep reminding ourselves about us and Dumper (coach Tony McGahan) stays on top of us about.
“We know how good we can be on our day but there’s a lot of hard work and concentration that goes into it and we don’t take that for granted.
“The media have to tag someone as favourite and underdog and one thing we’ve been good at is realising that it’s all on the day, it’s a cup match, it’s knock-out rugby, something we were raised on.
“We know that no matter how big a team is as favourite or as underdog, it’s all down to the performance and what we bring to that day. That’s what we’ve been reminding ourselves all week.
“We’re in a good place but it’s a one-off game. They’ll be quietly confident they can produce a big performance.
“I normally read the papers when I go to my parents’ house for dinner. But I haven’t been up for dinner this week so I haven’t read anything yet. But I don’t think I’ll see anything that we could latch on to from Leinster, these guys are very experienced.
“The atmosphere in Lansdowne Road in 2006 was phenomenal and I’m sure it will be no different this time. There might be a GAA element to the atmosphere as well which will add to it, and it will be fabulous to play a provincial game at Croke Park, something neither team has done before.”
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