Sean O'Brien will never play for Ireland again, but he could be a Lion
Group or knockout stages, Sean O'Brien deserved to go out on his shield.
When Ireland won the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018, Sean O'Brien was feeling his way back after sustaining a hip injury late in 2017. He played 40 minutes of a comeback game in February and 27 minutes of another comeback in March. That was that. His season was done.
O'Brien had returned from the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand with his status as one of the world's best opensides firmly intact. Sadly, he has not been able to build on that tour, and those performances. His body has betrayed him.
2018/19 saw O'Brien get in a couple of Guinness PRO14 and Champions Cup games before he linked up with Ireland. New Zealand were coming to town on November 17 but O'Brien missed out. A shoulder injury saw him last only 37 minutes against Argentina and he was back on the sidelines for two months.
56 minutes against Wasps, for Leinster, and he was on Six Nations duty. He came off the bench against England and ran into the same brick wall his teammates had for the previous 64 minutes. He was better against Scotland - in from the start as CJ Stander's cheekbone recovered - but off-key against Italy.
Joe Schmidt dropped him for the win over France but Josh van der Flier limped off in that game. He was back in for the decider against Wales, which Wales decided in their favour by hammering Schmidt's beleaguered troops.
O'Brien was called ashore with Ireland 19-0 down and still half an hour to play. After 56 Test caps, this will now be the final image of O'Brien's Ireland career.
There was a brief flurry - two 80-minute masterclasses against Ulster and Toulouse - that suggested O'Brien was motoring again in the comfort, assurance and surrounds of Leinster but the Champions Cup final brought back all those doubts.
Jackson Wray was the best openside on show, at St James' Park, and Billy Vunipola absolutely ran amok from the No.8 position. The Carlow native lasted 62 minutes but looked spent as he walked from the field with the game still in the melting pot.
It was not a dip in form, though. It was not a lack of desire. O'Brien was having hip issues again and he would not play in the PRO14 semi or final. His Leinster teammates knew his hip injury was more serious than his coaches were letting on, in public at least, and determined to have him lift the PRO14 trophy if they got past Glasgow Warriors.
After their final triumph in Glasgow, Leinster captain Johnny Sexton said:
For me, he's up there with some of the best players I’ve ever played with. As a forward, I'd say he's the best... no offence Leo!"
"He has strings to his bow that some other forwards in the world just didn't have, in his prime. As a leader and a player. we're going to miss him."
In his prime. That prime may now be looked back as 2008 to 2017. There were serious injuries and set-backs in between but when O'Brien was firing, few could live with him.
Before O'Brien went out and helped tear the Aussies asunder at the 2011 World Cup, Wallabies forward Radike Samo confessed that he did not know who the reigning European Player of the Year was. After Ireland's 15-6 victory, in which O'Brien starred, teammate Stephen Ferris remarked, "Well they certainly know who he is now."
Other big games that stand out are New Zealand (2012 in Christchurch and 2013 in Dublin), away to Scotland when the 2015 Six Nations was clinched and the group stage win over France at the 2015 World Cup. Every outing in that 2017 Lions Tour was crunching, combative and memorable. The Kiwis don't throw out Richie McCaw comparisons often but O'Brien was getting it each week.
Another date with the surgeon's knife awaits. Another invasive procedure to try fix that hip. There will be no World Cup for O'Brien to flex his muscles in.
If he recovers and rehabs successfully, he will make his London Irish debut around the turn of the year. Playing club rugby abroad, that injury profile and the pool of quality back rows to chose from mean O'Brien's Ireland career is over.
That does not mean his Test-playing days are consigned to history. Not yet.
Warren Gatland is expected to be named British & Irish Lions head coach at a swank event in Isleworth next Wednesday. The Kiwi would be overseeing his third straight tour and would get 18 months' run at preparing his side to face the Springboks in South Africa.
In his six Test matches as Lions head coach, Gatland has started O'Brien four times and played him off the bench in another game. Gatland will be on the look-out for proven performers, good tourists and lads that strike fear into the Boks.
If O'Brien can get himself as right as medically and physically possible, and tear it up in this new-look London Irish side, don't rule out a 34-year-old Tullow Tank rumbling across the Highveld in 2021.