'Next season is looking really positive for me'
The Big Interview: Conor O'Brien
With only three weeks to go in the season, it seems like a good time to look back on the progress of a young man taking his first steps at Leinster Rugby HQ. And on a glorious sunny morning in UCD it all feels a million miles away from Conor O'Brien's two years in the Sub-Academy down in Donnybrook. It makes 21-year-old O'Brien appreciate it all the more.
"As part of the Sub-Academy, you'd rarely be up here in UCD. Only every now and then to do a bit of physio maybe and you'd be looking at the facilities and you'd just be so envious of it all. It was a good motivational tool because in the middle of winter down in Donnybrook, a morning like this with the sun on your back in UCD can seem a lifetime away."
Westmeath native O'Brien wasn't living at home so it could have been worse but it tested him on a daily basis. He was living in Clontarf and that meant a morning commute on the DART to Sandymount and then the subsequent walk to the Sub-Academy base in Donnybrook.
"You'd be out of bed at maybe six in the morning. Pitch black outside, freezing cold and wet, windy. You'd leg it to the DART station then hop off again and walk to Donnybrook, still dark outside! You'd be cold and miserable arriving to training and then you'd have to get up for the work ahead be that in the gym or out on the pitch."
Those two years in the Sub-Academy set him and the others up for a crack at the Academy system and one year into his three-year apprenticeship, how has he enjoyed the time?
"I was disappointed that I picked up a few ankle injuries and that impacted on my ability to put the hand up for selection and it impacted upon my availability for Clontarf too in the AIL. I played a few games at the start of the AIL season and then the end of season run-in but it was disappointing to not contribute more.
"But the season itself with the Academy has gone really well. I feel I'm developing as a player both physically and mentally and I've really enjoyed working in the environment. I feel my skills have come on hugely working with the likes of Noel McNamara so overall it's been massively positive."
Fleeting Did it live up to those early expectations created during fleeting visits to the UCD based physios?
"Definitely! Ask anyone here - even the coaches - and all they want to do is to play for Leinster Rugby and the first team at that. This place, the set-up, the facilities, the coaching, everything, it's all geared towards that. Getting everyone in the space to be able to compete at the highest level and I've loved it.
"I look at the opportunities that a few lads have received this year. Hugo Keenan got a first cap, Max Deegan, Charlie Rock the same and you'd love that to be you so I'm just keen to get a good pre-season under my belt and hopefully put myself in the best position to take a chance if it comes my way."
His isn't a million miles away either. His day has already had him in the gym mixing it with seasoned Leinster pros and Irish internationals and this afternoon will see him on the pitch running at centre with the senior team. He is currently plying his trade in the centre and lined out at centre for Clontarf in the AIL final last weekend but it hasn't always been like that. He's been at ten, on the wing with Ireland 20s, and in the centre. A versatility that has served him well.
"I would have grown up playing a lot of Gaelic football with Mullingar Shamrocks so I think that has stood to me. The team environment is very similar. Hand-eye coordination obviously, comfortable with the ball in hand, kicking, catching over your head, agility and a general athletic ability too. My last game of football was actually with the Westmeath minors against Mayo in an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2013 so it's been a while but I think it stands to you. I would have used games with the Shamrocks to get me ready for rugby pre-season but those days are behind me for now."
Not an easy decision to walk away though especially with his dad Gareth and grandfather John well known in Offaly footballing circles for their exploits with Rahan Shamrocks. His dad even won an All-Ireland U-21 title with Offaly in 1988.
But that didn't stop him taking a spin down to Cullion and Mullingar RFC. "That All-Ireland is my dad's claim to fame alright and while I loved it and he had a hurl in my hand and a football at my feet from as far back as I can remember he also got me down to Mullingar Rugby Club.
"Men like Brendan Leahy, Shane Johnston, Dermot Hogan and Tony Doolin and the likes had a massive influence on me and that love for rugby then grew. So for now I'm just focused on rugby and on Clontarf and on my second year in the Leinster Academy. I suppose with the injuries I feel that a lot of this season passed me by so I'd love to think that I could go well next season."
He has also learned valuable lessons from those morning commutes frozen on the DART.
"I''ve moved closer to UCD and am swapping college courses so I'll be studying in UCD as well which will again make a big difference in terms of my time and trying to get to and from college. So I think next season is looking really positive for me and I can't wait to get going."
Easier All the easier when you know you're in a club that is going places.
"Obviously Leinster is the ultimate goal but I'm already looking forward to playing with the Clontarf boys more next season. I've really enjoyed the last three seasons there. They put in a massive effort this season and when I came back in the mood in the camp was superb, they were really well set up and maybe we underperformed in the final but credit Cork Con and how they played.
"So it would be great to be out there with them next season more often. Andy Wood, Simon Broughton and Pat McHale put in a massive effort every week and as a result the set-up is hugely professional so when Bryan Byrne, Mick Kearney, Jack Power and myself go in there the standard helps your game massively."
A lot done, more to do and with the hunger and drive to do it.