'Next year's trophies are already on the line'
Published 08/05/2015 | 02:30
For once this season Sean O'Brien is happy not to look too far forward. For too long he's had targets and for too long they have been in the distance. Not now. Now the focus is on Treviso, on tonight, on the RDS, on getting the win. Talk of World Cups and whatever else may lie ahead is for another day.
"It's there of course it is but you can't let yourself drift. You have to stay very focused on the job at hand and that's Treviso. We know what we have to do. We have to deliver a performance that too often this year in the Pro12 we haven't done.
"We still have plenty to play for - not what we'd like and there is no trophy at stake - but next year's trophies are already on the line. We have to get into that top six. It's that simple."
At the start of the season it was all to play for. There was no talk of top six. Matt O'Connor and his coaching team had nearly a full hand to choose from and there weren't many that would bet against them defending their Pro12 title.
O'Brien also felt that enthusiasm but it wasn't long slipping away.
"I started at No 8 against Glasgow first day out, I was the captain as well so I was keen to get off to a good start," he recalls. "We lost narrowly but we saw enough in that second half to know we'd move on and we'd get better.
"We got a bonus point too over there and not many would get that so that was a plus, but I also knew after that game that my shoulder was at me and I feared the worst."
The Carlow native would play no further part in Leinster's season until seven months later as Bath came to the Aviva Stadium in the Champions Cup.
"Of course it's frustrating - to know that after one game the majority of the season was gone was a big blow," he says. "In particular coming on the back of missing so much of last season. . .
"But you can't let it get to you either. You have to let those feelings go pretty quickly as if you don't it will weigh you down. You move on. Easier said than done but that's what you do and that's what I did."
O'Brien had also been appointed vice-captain by his peers along with Rob Kearney, with Jamie Heaslip as captain. It was to be a big year.
"It was a great honour to be asked. A lot of leaders have left in the last few years - Leo, Brian, Johnny and Isa - so it really is up to the next group to step up," he says.
"We have a good group of lads here and there are plenty of leaders in there so it is an honour to be selected from within that group."
As the injury toll mounted and Leinster struggled for form it was difficult for him to watch on from the sidelines.
"When you are not on the field it is very difficult to be in the environment. Of course you give your opinion and you try to contribute but you do feel pretty hopeless looking on and not being able to do anything about it," he explains.
"You see the results. Tight games lost or games drawn that we should have won. Small margins and you'd like to think that you could have helped in some small way. So you then refocus and double your efforts on getting back fit and making sure that when called upon you can have that impact."
First to come calling was Joe Schmidt and the Six Nations campaign.
"I was a little bit ahead of the rehab schedule and that is a credit to the S&C lads at Leinster and then at the IRFU who were looking after me," he says.
"They know their stuff and most importantly they know their players. Look at the injuries and the rehabs. Most lads are back ahead of time and it was fortunate for me that I was back for the Six Nations."
But true to O'Brien's narrative the last few seasons, it wasn't without its moments. He featured for the Wolfhounds in his first game back but having been selected to start in the first Six Nations fixture against Italy, a hamstring injury in the warm-up meant he had to pull out of his senior comeback. The worst-case scenario must have been racing through his mind?
"To be honest it wasn't!" he insists. "After any long-term injury there is always that danger of a soft-tissue injury just because of the step up in intensity when you return. I also knew myself that yes it was a hamstring but it wasn't a serious one. So I knew I had to be honest with management and then just get it right for the next day against France."
He got it right and went on to play a pivotal role in Ireland's defence of the Six Nations, none more so than on that fateful last day in Murrayfield against Scotland when he scored two tries in a Man of the Match performance.
"I enjoyed the win, definitely. Just the frustration of the last two seasons. I missed out on last year's Six Nations completely so to come back and win one was special," he says.
"You add in to the mix the road that you have to take to get to that moment and you know how hard it's been. So yeah it was very special to be part of that group."
The rest of the season with Leinster hasn't lived up to expectations but as he points out they were the width of a post away from a place in the Champions Cup final.
"If we win that game and we make it to a final, that puts everything else to bed. But we didn't punish Toulon when we had them on the rack in normal time. They deserved it in extra time maybe but we had our chances," he acknowledges.
"We'll learn from it and we'll be better for it. You have to let those feelings go pretty quickly, take the positives, learn from it and make sure that the next day you're that bit better. But that is a first European semi-final for this group and there are positives in that."
Treviso today. Then Edinburgh away. And then a break. Time to recharge the batteries for one final push this season. But still no World Cup talk.
"I'll take a week or two off and head home and get some jobs done there. I've a few stags as well so I'll enjoy them," he says. "I've nothing else really planned yet but I'll get there in good time. And then I'll set my goals and we'll go again."