Friday 28 April 2017

Birthday boy ready to celebrate with win in Coventry

Memorable year since his debut has young Galway native hungry for more glory days

Sean O’Brien is mixing his rugby with his civil law degree at NUI Galway. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean O’Brien is mixing his rugby with his civil law degree at NUI Galway. Photo: Sportsfile

Daragh Small

Two days before one of the biggest matches in Connacht Rugby history, Sean O'Brien certainly won't be out celebrating his 22nd birthday this evening.

Instead it will be a night of relaxation as he looks to contribute whatever he can towards the province's huge Champions Cup Pool 2 clash with Wasps at Ricoh Arena on Sunday.

If he gets his chance it will be a ninth appearance in Europe, and 25th in all for his home province just over 13 months on from his debut in the memorable clash against Enisei-STM in the Challenge Cup.

Between November 14 last year and now, Connacht have become Pro12 champions and genuine contenders in Europe's premier competition, where they lead the way in their pool after two wins from two matches.

And despite a couple of big injuries this season, Clarinbridge native O'Brien has played in the victories over Toulouse and Zebre, as well as the comprehensive Pro12 win over Treviso last weekend, and the loss at Leinster in October.

The former Ireland U-19 and U-20 captain picked up his latest injury setback in the 24-13 inter-provincial defeat at the RDS.

"I'm just back fit now in the last two weeks. I picked up a hamstring strain against Leinster," said O'Brien.

"It was quite annoying at the time. I was only just back from doing my syndesmosis (ankle) during the summer. It was only my third game and I was trying to get a run of games together.

"It wasn't a massive injury, it was just a three or four-week job but it was frustrating to miss out.

"It happened after about ten minutes, I was just carrying and got tackled funnily and felt it snag. The thing was it wasn't that serious, I knew I had done it straight away but I was able to play on for most the game.

"The rehab went really well. I was happy to get back on time. There was no problem with it, it was just frustrating to get another injury on the back of the syndesmosis."

But O'Brien is back fit and ready to go now, as Connacht look to shock Europe once more and claim another huge scalp, having already accounted for four-time winners Toulouse.

O'Brien is thrilled to be available once more, but the former Cistercian College Roscrea captain is determined to make an impact this time around.

His versatility gives coach Pat Lam options, but with so much competition between the second-row and back-row positions, O'Brien does not want to be seen as an impact replacement.

Fundamentals

"I need to stay fit and then after that I just need to work on my fundamentals and work in training. Basically it's just down to hard work and continually working on your skills and your game.

"Hopefully then after that you will get the opportunity and when that comes you have to take your chance.

"I am completely happy once I am on the pitch. I don't mind whether I am utilised in the back-row or second-row. For me the roles are amalgamating to a certain degree. Obviously you have a bit more free rein in the back-row but my role doesn't change too much whether I am in the second- or back-row.

"As the second-row you are going to be more a lineout operator, you have a lot of hard work where you hit a lot of rucks and look after the ball.

"In the back-row you get the opportunity to carry the ball a bit more. You might be expected to put a bit more pressure on their ball and have less of a role in the lineout."

O'Brien is in the second part of his final year Civil Law degree from NUI Galway, and has an exam on Tuesday.

But once he overcomes that obstacle it's all systems go towards another big Champions Cup evening at the Sportsground in eight days' time.

If Connacht can even just get a losing bonus point from this weekend's match in Coventry it will add to the intrigue surrounding that fixture but O'Brien knows so much can happen between then and now.

"I was lucky I got back in time for the big one against Toulouse last time out in Europe," he says.

"To just get off the bench for that one was brilliant and the Zebre game that followed was nice as well.

"I'm just hoping to get a string of games together now and get back fully fit.

"The Toulouse game was unbelievable. The atmosphere in the Sportsground is always great and the fans here always go crazy especially on those big nights. It's unbelievable to run out on the Sportsground.

"On the nights like that it steps up another level again and it's a privilege to run out in front of the home supporters.

"The games that are close like the Toulouse one, the ones that are to and fro are always the ones you really enjoy at the final whistle. The manner in which we won it made it even better; it was just a great win.

"It's a great position to be in now, but there is a long, long way to go yet. We have done nothing yet. If we plan on progressing, we need to have some massive results. We have to go back to the grindstone and work hard. And hopefully we can get some massive results that go the right way.

"Wasps are an absolutely quality side. They have got stars all over the pitch. But it's a great challenge and one we are looking forward to.

"You want to be playing against those teams, you want to be playing against the best teams in the world. It's a great stage to highlight yourselves and show what we can do in Connacht."

Irish Independent

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