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08th Sep 2018

“I was trying to battle on and add something, to get us over the line” – Sean O’Brien

Patrick McCarry

Just imagine.

Just imagine the deeds this Ireland team can do with Sean O’Brien back at full ping. Imagine the havoc he could wreak.

He can play across the back row and bring meaning and menace to each role. Look at the other options Ireland have available to them and imagine. He can be paired with:

Peter O’Mahony, Jordi Murphy, CJ Stander, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Rhys Ruddock.

Pick two from that seven and watch them go. We have lads like Max Deegan, Jack O’Donoghue, Caelan Doris, Josh Murphy, Tommy O’Donnell and Nick Timoney to call on, and you would not put it past Joe Schmidt, in 2019, promoting a young, abrasive gunslinger who hasn’t even won an U20 cap yet.

The likelihood is that two or three of those names mentioned will miss out on the 2019 World Cup but Ireland have a wealth of class options to head to Japan. O’Brien will be 32 in Japan, if form and providence allow him to make that flight, and it should be his last hurrah.

The last time he was on the biggest stage in rugby he was dishing it up to the All Blacks. He is not being fed back into the Leinster squad but, he assures us, it won’t be long. Back for the inter-pros, Champions Cup and he should be well oiled for Novembers’s visit of the All Blacks.

Just imagine.

For all that he has achieved, and won, at Leinster, O’Brien has missed out on a few big occasions with Ireland. He made his senior Ireland debut eight months after the 2009 Grand Slam and missed out on the 2014 Six Nations. He returned to help Ireland retain that trophy, in 2015, but his shoulder injury cost him a place in 2018’s Grand Slam triumph.

That injury, sustained in a European win over Exeter Chiefs, also saw him miss out on the business end of Leinster’s PRO14 and Champions Cup double. He went out on the razz with the Leinster lads but admits it was ‘an unusual one’.

“It’s not the same when you are not involved. Obviously I added a bit to the set-up and was involved earlier on… everyone is telling you that sort of stuff, but you play to be there, to be part of the big finals and to be out on the field. It’s very different, so it is, not contributing on the field, on the day.

“Bit of a strange one. The lads are on a different buzz to what you are. But that’s human nature as well. You are disappointed; you’re happy though as well. It’s mixed emotions.

“The lads don’t forget about you, well, completely anyway but it’s strange. They’ve put in the work on the field. You’ve added a bit to the set-up off the field but, other than that, you can’t do much for them.”

The trouble began the week after one of the greatest highs of his career. O’Brien and his British & Irish Lions teammates defeated New Zealand in Wellington’s ‘Cake Tin’ and proved the world champions were human. O’Brien knew a backlash would follow at Eden Park. He declared:

“They’ll be coming to try and hurt us, won’t they?”

That was definitely the intent of Jerome Kaino – not hurt, not injure – when he brutally cleared him out of a ruck before half-time in the deciding Test.

O’Brien played through the pain until half-time but, once play stopped, his shoulder seized up and he could go no further. The Carlow man flanker reunited with Kaino after the full-time whistle confirmed a rare series draw. Their conversation shows a clear, mutual respect.

“He’s one of the lads I’d speak to more so than other lads. Jerome is a really nice guy and a really hard player; tough.

“We had a bit of a laugh at the end, ‘You got me!’, I said, and he got me good and fair. It was a tough one but he’s a nice guy and I made sure to talk with him after.”

The shoulder wasn’t too shabby after four weeks’ rest but O’Brien’s hips were playing up and his start to last season was delayed. He made it back to play Edinburgh in late September, missed the Champions Cup pool games the next month, and got in 80 minutes against Ulster to prove to Schmidt that he was ready for international duty.

He started in the wins over Argentina and South Africa but something didn’t feel quite right. Watching from the stands, on both nights, it looked as though O’Brien was fighting a battle with his own body, as well as the Boks and Pumas. Asked if he was already playing through injury by November 2017, O’Brien tells me:

“I wasn’t playing through any discomfort with my shoulder, that November. I wasn’t playing with that much discomfort in my hip either, although it might have been at me a bit.

“In those two Champions Cup games against Exeter, the first one was fine and in the second one I was in a fair bit of pain [with my shoulder] alright. But that was just… I knew I had a block of games that I needed to get through and they were two massive games for us. So, I was trying to battle on and add something to the set-up to get us over the line.”

O’Brien played 57 minutes of that home victory, as Leinster edged a cracker against Exeter, but it came at a price. He was forced to sit out the Six Nations and his two comeback attempts – against Treviso (March) and Cardiff (April) – ended after 40 and 27 minutes. For the sake of his rugby future, it was decided that O’Brien be pulled from the line of fire.

Leo Cullen was asked, in late April, if O’Brien would play again. “Definitely,” he responded before praising the resilience of his player and former teammate.

Doubts on the certainty of Cullen’s reply would have been understandable, back then, but not now. Standing in front of a press grouping (ourselves included) at the offices of Bearing Point, in Dublin, O’Brien looks in great shape and he is raring to go.

One can’t see him going much further than the World Cup in Japan – his body has taken far too much damage – but he only improves Ireland’s chances by being there.

Just imagine.

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