Heineken Cup Final head to head: Brian O'Driscoll v James Downey
One of the most interesting Heineken Cup Final head to heads pits the best Irish player in a generation against a man quietly hoping to nail a place in the Irish World Cup squad.
There will be hundreds of rosary beads worn to a nub across the province of Leinster this week as their supporters pray to the gods that their talisman will be fit in time for Saturday.
Despite the fact that Brian O’Driscoll seemed to be in considerable pain with a knee injury last Friday night, however, it would be a miracle if he didn’t play. As has been so evident throughout his career, the man simply has amazing powers of recovery and was probably who Jamie Heaslip was referring to earlier in the week when he said “Your leg or some piece of you would have to be hanging off for you not to play this week.”
Given the depth of resources in their squad and with the likes of Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley available to come in, Leinster could cope without the Irish captain in theory, but in reality it is something Joe Schmidt will not want to countenance.
Some say that O’Driscoll’s powers are on the wane, but to me, that is a bit of an insult. Sure, he’s not the swashbuckling, lightning-quick attacking outside centre of the middle of the last decade, but in the same way as Ryan Giggs for Manchester United, he has adapted his game to ensure that he hasn’t been left behind.
There is no better defensive centre in world rugby, the man can compete at the breakdown like the cutest of flankers and you only need to look at his try against Toulouse in the semi-final and a few efforts during the run to the Grand Slam 2009 to see that he is ruthlessly clinical when he gets within sight of the try line.
The man that will have the unenviable task of going head to head with O’Driscoll in Cardiff is someone he will be familiar with, as Leinster was one of three Irish provinces the well-travelled James Downey stopped off at in an eventful career that brought him to Northampton via Italian side Calvisano.
Irish fans could be far more familiar with James Downey by the time the World Cup rolls around
The 30-year-old is well settled at the Saints having spent the last four seasons there and is showing form that has prompted calls for his introduction into the Irish set-up. In a backline that features Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, Downey doesn’t often get the headlines and although he does sometimes fill the crash merchant role and puts in some thumping hits, the more subtle parts of his game are often conveniently ignored.
He was central to both of the Saints tries against Perpignan in the semi-final, while only centre partner Jon Clarke has played more games than him this season. D’Arcy and O’Driscoll may have the edge on paper this weekend, but they will come up against a pair that are just as familiar in each other’s company as they are.
In what is one of the last auditions for World Cup places, making an impression against Ireland’s first choice centre partnership is the best way for Downey to convince Declan Kidney that he is worthy of a seat on the plane to New Zealand in the autumn.
Irish neutrals looking on will no doubt be shouting for Leinster, but at least it’s guaranteed that an Irishman will be celebrating on Saturday night whichever way the result goes.