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28th Mar 2024

‘Nothing stupid early on, lads’ – Sean O’Brien recalls Pascal Papé incident

Patrick McCarry

Sean O’Brien

“I said, ‘Nothing stupid early on, lads’… and then, 90 seconds later, I’d a fella punched in the stomach, myself!”

Although it came at a price, Sean O’Brien was fortunate that this was missed by the match officials at the time.

Ireland’s 2015 World Cup campaign ranks up there with 2011 as the most frustrating of the team’s nine tilts at the Webb Ellis trophy. Stacked with undoubted talent and proven winners, Ireland topped their group for the second tournament in succession only to fall at the next hurdle in the quarter finals.

2011 saw Wales out-fox Declan Kidney’s side in Wellington while Argentina ran Ireland ragged, in Cardiff, four years later. What did for Ireland in 2015, however, was a cruel injury list and the suspension of O’Brien for that knock-out match. Captain Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne and Peter O’Mahony all missed the clash with Los Pumas.

France were not great shakes in 2015 but they did have some quality in their starting XV, most notably Thierry Dusautoir, Wesley Fofana, Mathieu Bastareaud and Louis Picamoles. Their second row contained the imposing duo of Pascal Papé and Yoann Maestri and, as O’Brien recalls, there had been pre-match talk that the French pack would force their will on Joe Schmidt’s men.

“Before we went out for that game,” O’Brien recalled, back in 2019, “I’d given a bit of a spiel in the dressing room.

“I was fired up all week, because the Frenchies had come out and said, ‘We’re going to bully these lads. We’re going to physically dominate them. We’re going to do all these stuff to them’.

“And I was kind of saying, ‘You’re going to do absolutely none of that! We’re going to do that to ye!’, in my head. So I kind of got revved up in the changing room.

“Then we were in the tunnel on the way out and I turned around – I think I was fourth or fifth out – and I said, ‘Nothing stupid early on, lads’… and then, 90 seconds later, I’d a fella punched in the stomach, myself!”

“Paulie asked, ‘Did you just punch him?!’” – Sean O’Brien

Footage of the strike – Sean O’Brien insists it was more of a slap – was brought to the attention of the citing officer after the game and the Ireland flanker had to face a hearing in front of the independent panel to explain his actions.

During his memorable live appearance in Limerick for House of RugbyO’Brien gave his honest appraisal of Papé and what was going through his mind at the time.

“Sitting in the hearing listening an international player, telling lies. It baffled me like. He said to them he was in hospital for a night and that his rib was broke. Then the doctor’s report came back and none of this had happened.

“I was like, ‘Your ribs will be broke, alright, if I get my hands on you again!’ If I had’ve got hold of him after the Argentina game, there would have been trouble.

“The funny thing that happened in that game was after the punch, and after Nigel Owens had broken everything up. I was keeping an eye on him, wondering if he saw me or if anyone heard anything. There wasn’t a word being said but Paulie came to me and said, ‘Did you just punch him?!’

“Paulie had seen it out of the corner of his eye and he asked me if I punched him in the stomach. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Open hand!’ and just walked off. So I did lie to Paulie at the time. He still gets on to me about it!”

The Papé punch incident was big news at the time as Ireland needed every able body they could get. The Carlow native got off lightly, a one-game ban, but it meant he would miss the last eight clash with Los Pumas.

“I’m missing the quarter final against Argentina. And I remember, it was definitely one of the worst times of my life, that citing, and going into the Argentina game.”

“We were missing Paulie, Johnny and a few lads – one of us on the field and I think we would have beaten the Argies,” he added. “It was one of my biggest regrets.”

O’Brien’s next game for Ireland was a Six Nations clash with France, in February 2016, but a hamstring injury ended his day after only 25 minutes. A measure of retribution was meted out, a year later, when O’Brien put in a dominant openside display and Ireland defeated Les Bleus 19-9 in Dublin.

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