COMMENT: Slew of injuries threatening Sean O'Brien's Ireland legacy 5 years ago

COMMENT: Slew of injuries threatening Sean O'Brien's Ireland legacy

In July 2014, Sean O'Brien was asked how he thought his body would be after he retired. "Broken up," he replied.

The man affectionately known as The Tullow Tank is in for running repairs again.

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O'Brien tore his hamstring again, in February's narrow defeat to France. At Ireland's training session at Mullingar RFC, Schmidt confirmed the worst - O'Brien would miss the rest of the championship.

Rested for the Six Nations opener against Wales - with a tender hamstring - O'Brien looked Ireland's best player in Paris as they started with menacing intent.

Then, 18 minutes in, his injury jinx struck again. He hit the deck inside his own half and knew his race was run. Here we go again.

For fans and rugby writers, it was a depressing sight. For O'Brien, it must have been deeper malaise. His anguished face told us everything we needed to know.

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Sean O'Brien injured with Dr. Jim McShane 13/2/2016

Ireland readied Tommy O'Donnell and soldiered on. At this stage, it has become second nature. When O'Brien missed the away trip to Twickenham, to face England, it was the 15th Test he has missed out of Ireland's last 27.

It was not always this way.

O'Brien made three appearances in 14 Tests from November 2009 to February 2011, when he was just breaking into the Test set-up. Once he started the 2011 Six Nations match against Italy, he nailed down a place in the back row and was a near-constant presence.

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He appeared in 28 of the next 35 Tests, for Ireland and the British & Irish Lions, and looked comfortable in the world-class bracket.

In December 2013, he badly injured his shoulder against Ulster and began a downward injury spiral. He eventually required multiple surgeries on that shoulder and missed 11 Tests in a row for the national team.

PERCENTAGE OF GAMES O'BRIEN HAS PLAYED FOR IRELAND

Sean O'Brien games

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Former Ireland teammate Stephen Ferris describes O'Brien as 'an absolute bull' and one of the toughest opponents he has played against. He also notes that O'Brien has almost had 20 surgeries in his eight-season career. O'Brien is 28 years old.

Unfortunately, it has gotten to the stage where an O'Brien injury is expected. Life goes on.

Joe Schmidt told us, in early February, that he left the Leinster man out of his squad for the championship opener as he was mindful of O'Brien pulling his hamstring again, as he did in the warm-up for the Italy game last year.

These incidents, and they are getting longer for O'Brien, now play in the mind of his coaches and teammates.

At Ireland's training base at Carton House, he set out to prove he was ready to go. In training, Schmidt said he was immense. He passed every marker set for him.

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So, rather than continue with Tommy O'Donnell, who had a fine game against Wales, Schmidt rejigged his back row. We all applauded it. CJ Stander, O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip in tandem. What could go wrong?

In Paris, it took 18 minutes to find out.

Sean O'Brien goes down injured 13/2/2016

O'Brien had a Grade Two tear but, not for the first time, it turned out to be worse than first expected.

By the time the Italy game came around, on March 12, Ireland had Josh van der Flier two Tests into his career. Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O'Donnell, Jack Conan all waiting in the wings. Jake Heenan becomes Irish qualified at the beginning of next season and Peter O'Mahony should be back.

Even typing that feels wrong but Schmidt may have to make a decision on O'Brien sooner rather than later.

Does he rely on a man who can bring a thunderous fury and attacking purpose every time he pulls on the jersey or does he opt for a safer yet less combustible option?

Make no mistake, a fully fit Sean O'Brien is our best back row.

Ireland will be doing well if they see him line out for them again this year. Another surgery awaits over the summer. Another batch of intensive rehab.

One hopes he can get back, stay fit and consistency deliver on the potential all Irish fans saw from the moment he took the ball in hand and horsed through any Fijians foolish enjoy to stand in his way.

*Updated from a piece first published on February 19