How the farmer's son from Tullow became the hottest property in European rugby
Home bird's decision to stick with Leinster will delight everyone from Carlow to Lansdowne Road
Published 17/01/2014 | 02:30
ON THE morning Sean O'Brien got the news he was going to be a Lion, he was meeting the children of Rathcoyle NS on the Wicklow side of the Carlow border.
A small primary school not far from Baltinglass couldn't have been further from the glitz and glamour of the squad announcement in London, but the Leinster back-row had made a long-standing commitment to Tullow RFC youth development officer Larry Canavan and he wasn't going to break it.
Over in England, the confirmation of a place on the plane was another step to becoming rugby royalty, but the farmer's son has never allowed himself to forget his roots. No matter how high his career has allowed him to climb, his home club has never been far from his thoughts.
So it is that the most in-demand player in Europe shares his day-jobs with his farm, the director of rugby role at his home-town club, his degree in sports management at UCD and his yet-to-be-defined new job as member of the Carlow senior footballers' backroom team.
The term 'home bird' has been bandied around to describe the man fondly known as the 'Tullow Tank', but, while he retains his close links to his Carlow home and is available to players at all levels, O'Brien has never been afraid to spread his wings and take off and nobody in Tullow would begrudge him leaving if he had taken Toulon up on their generous offer to move to the south of France.
The journey from Leinster club rugby in the south east of the province to the top of the world game is the road less travelled, but O'Brien has lived up to his nickname and blown all obstacles out of his way.
At 18, the Ireland Youths international upped sticks and headed for south Dublin to join up with the UCD academy and Leinster, where he would rub shoulders with the great and the good of the schools rugby set.
In the dressing-rooms at UCD, your school is worn like a badge of honour, but, despite not having an illustrious name like Blackrock, Clongowes or Belvedere on his CV, the Tullow CS graduate walked through the door with his head held high and delivered on the training pitch.
Far from some introverted country kid a long way from home, John McClean remembers a driven and ambitious teenager
"He was a very easy guy to deal with, he just got stuck in. He worked on his course, he did his stuff," the now retired director of rugby at the university said of his former charge.
"His home, his farm and Tullow is a big part of his life, but he contributed hugely to UCD in the time he was there. He came in, got on with it and there was no messing around -- he doesn't take fellas messing around either -- he'd be quick enough to tell a fella to get on with it.
"He'd have a great attitude. He's a very determined guy, he's a guy who wants to be a winner all the time and he sets high standards for himself and people around him too. He wants guys around him to do well, he wants to play well himself and he's willing to do whatever is necessary to do it.
"He was a little bit like what he still is, he was very powerful and very strong. He carried the ball very well for a 17- or 18-year-old. He looked a guy with potential. Some guys never go on from having potential, but others make the most of it and Seany certainly did."
From the UCD and Leinster academies, O'Brien graduated to the province's first team, where he made his debut off the bench against Cardiff Blues in September 2008 and his rapid rise saw Declan Kidney hand him his first Ireland jersey against Fiji at the RDS in 2009.
His remarkable strength when carrying the ball marked him out as different, his ability to go through or around defenders with equal ease meant that he was a valuable commodity and he quickly became a fixture for club and country.
But he also worked on his game, constantly responding to coaches and improving the raw materials.
"He takes things in, listens to them and he wants to be better all of the time. He came in initially as a No 8, but he moved to seven when he played for the senior team and he was an extremely good player for us," McClean recalled.
"He has the qualities that you need for an eight in terms of ball-carrying, the qualities you need at blindside in terms of defence and I think he has the qualities for a seven, if not the classic Neil Back or Keith Gleeson seven.
"Seany's very powerful, very strong and good on the ball. He has developed the ground aspect to his game that wasn't always there, he wouldn't have done that as a young guy and his performances show that. When he's not there, he's missed."
His rise continued through the 2011 World Cup where he achieved cult status with an email filled with jokes about his on-field strength and prowess going viral and providing the soundtrack for that heady month which ended in disappointment against Wales.
Although he missed out on the 2009 success, he was an integral part of Leinster's two-in-a-row in 2011 and 2012 as his game moved on a level under the now Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
Under the New Zealander, the powerful back-rower developed into a world-class all-rounder at openside and it earned him that shot at the Lions.
While he met the children of south-west Wicklow last spring, captain Sam Warburton was being unveiled in London.
With the skipper competing for the same jersey, it looked like O'Brien would struggle for a shot at the Tests, not that he was ready to give up.
"Hopefully, the Test team is where I'll be," he boldly said before setting off for Australia.
"I'll be pretty determined to go about my business over there and try and make the Test side.
"Obviously, I have to leave myself in the best possible position -- if that role pops up -- that I am ready to go into it."
He was true to his word, acting as 24th man for the first Test win and coming off the bench to some effect in the second. When Warburton was unavailable for the decider, Warren Gatland turned to O'Brien and he delivered in spades.
Those performances marked him out as a leading light for the rest of Ireland's World Cup cycle, but they also confirmed to the big guns in the Top 14 that this was a man worth having.
With their ageing European Cup winning back-row heading towards the exit, Toulon made O'Brien a priority and did everything they could to lure him to the south of France.
It took a last-gasp bid by the IRFU to keep him at home as they belatedly added him to the coterie of high earners in the elite club of top players, despite the shoulder injury that has taken him out of the Six Nations.
The saga stretched on for months and the move was perilously close to becoming a reality, but while the attention might have gone to his head -- O'Brien still headed down the N81 to help and support his local club where his father, Sean Snr, is president and his whole family gathered to watch his Lions success.
"He is inspiring for the club," Tullow RFC PRO Noel Nolan said yesterday. "No one in the club would have been standing in his way if he'd decided to go or would have held it against him, but it's great news that he's staying. When he's on the sideline he gives the whole team a lift.
"He always has time for us and it is not just the rugby, his involvement with the GAA team shows what he is about."
The dislocated shoulder he suffered over Christmas may rob Ireland and Leinster of their 'Tullow Tank' for the time being, but yesterday's news that he is here to stay was a lift to all those who will flock to the RDS tonight and Lansdowne Road next month.
In his corner of Carlow, they'll rejoice that their own prized asset will still be a drive away.
Toulon may have been willing to break the bank for their favourite son, but in Tullow he is worth his weight in gold.
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