Tuesday 17 January 2017

High-flying O'Brien knows return won't be plain sailing

Leinster flanker thirsty for Canada dry run after lengthy injury absence

Published 09/11/2016 | 02:30

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in conversation with Sean O'Brien, centre, and Peter O'Mahony
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in conversation with Sean O'Brien, centre, and Peter O'Mahony
Niyi Adeolokun at Ireland training yesterday. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

If there was anyone more frustrated than Sean O'Brien not to have made it to Chicago last week, then the man who piloted the Parma-Dublin flight following Leinster's victory in Zebre may come a close second.

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After flexing his muscles in vexation to the detriment of the hapless Italian minnows, O'Brien then switched his attention to the cockpit, constantly badgering the pilot for score updates from Soldier Field.

Ireland's Sean O'Brien during squad training. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland's Sean O'Brien during squad training. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Any disappointment he may have harboured dissipated as his plane's landing coincided with his Stateside colleagues lifting themselves into quite another orbit altogether.

"I was disappointed not to be over there and involved," he says. "But the lads put in a serious performance and effort, you could only be happy for them.

"There's a great buzz round the place here now. It was brilliant, but on a personal level not great. It was possibly a week too soon for me.

"It probably is hard if I'm very honest. You are disappointed that you could have been there.

Darren Sweetnam arrives at Carton House in Maynooth. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Darren Sweetnam arrives at Carton House in Maynooth. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"But that's life, you've to go through these things but I'm looking forward to getting back on the field this week hopefully and that's all I'm thinking about now."

The edge returned when training resumed with a vigour amidst the crashing rain yesterday afternoon; Peter O'Mahony is also on the comeback trail after having to endure his own Pro12 purgatory while history happened on the other side of the pond.

And, with Jordi Murphy's absence promoting Josh van der Flier's credentials in the eyes of his admiring coach alongside the seemingly irrepressible Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander, it is not inconceivable that O'Brien has another battle on his hands to be selected for the rematch.

Forwards coach Simon Easterby was asked was there an extra edge to either O'Brien or O'Mahony as the back-row battle commences.

Jack O'Donoghue arrives for squad training. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jack O'Donoghue arrives for squad training. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

His denial was purely sanitised, of course, not to mention the fact that it predated the training session to come in the afternoon when, one presumes, skin and hair flew with alacrity.

Just the sense of competitive bite a squad that has just made history requires to keep on its toes.

"Well they're not the only ones who didn't have an opportunity to travel," adds Easterby, pointedly. "That's what happens in sport, whether it's professional or amateur, if you don't get selected it's how you deal with that as an individual.

Focused

"Sometimes you've got to deal with that in a specific way. For me, they've been brilliant coming back in. And they were fully focused last week when they found out they weren't going to travel in preparing the team before we travelled.

"Everyone will deal with those disappointments how they seem fit. The good thing for us, I feel, is that those guys coming back in - not just Seanie and Pete, but everyone coming back in, if they get the opportunity want to make a mark this weekend."

O'Brien will be in the vanguard of that cadre of hungry players; it may be a relatively meaningless match to the wider public but in the context of so many inter-personal battles, there are so many intriguing sub-plots and the potential starting back-line is brimming with them.

Keith Earls, Craig Gilroy and Tiernan O'Halloran will seek to thrill from the back three; Luke Marshall and Garry Ringrose likewise in midfield while Joey Carbery, should he start, will be keen to show Paddy Jackson that there is another class ten in town.

In the pack, from Finlay Bealham and Sean Cronin in the front-row to the returning Munster and Leinster back-row behemoths, there are multiple points to prove to the most demanding coach in world rugby. Nobody wants to miss a minute for they know not when the next one may arrive.

"For me, it's missing out on any international," adds O'Brien, whose enduring struggle against multiple injuries injects his tale with a particular resonance as many fear his once barnstorming ball-carrying eminence may never return to its glorious pomp.

"I want to play rugby and I want to play at this level. I've been out a good while away from the international scene. It's not until you're away that you really do miss it. You miss the environment, miss the lads and miss the big games. It's a tough place to be when you've a long-term injury because you want to be playing every week."

Jackson has returned to the squad after being denied the chance to travel to the USA last week but Carbery's 'bolter' status this term has threatened the man who shone in South Africa after several years of international frustration.

"Paddy was outstanding in South Africa, a real leader out there, in terms of the number ten jersey and leading the team to victory in Cape Town," says Easterby.

"He's obviously dealing with other things outside of the environment, which we'll leave him get on with but he's focused on trying to perform if selected. We've got some real depth in that position which is good for us and offers plenty of options in different styles as well."

Quite simply, there are no guarantees. Not only did Chicago shake the rugby world to its foundations; it has also shaken up the Irish squad too. No bad thing.

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