O'Brien would never have gone distance in France -- now let's make him world's best No 8
The news that Sean O'Brien has decided to stay at Leinster and reject the supposedly big money on offer at Toulon is good news for the player, his club and country. "In the end, I made a decision based on the standard mix of professional and personal considerations," O'Brien told IrishRugby.ie, which wasn't exactly giving much away.
Ronan O'Gara was perhaps a bit closer to the truth when suggesting that Jamie Heaslip might go to France, while O'Brien would be best served by staying at home. "Jamie is very durable and could easily stand up to the move," he said. Therein, I suggest, lies the key reason behind O'Brien's decision to stay at home. The Irish back-row is aggressive and the most powerful ball carrier in the game, but durable he is not. An X-ray of his body would be an orthopaedic surgeon's nightmare. His career is littered with decisions to come back too soon from injury. The prognosis for his middle age cannot be great and there must be doubts about whether he can play at the intensity demanded by Leinster and Ireland on a regular basis.
Had O'Brien decided to go to France I would have been horrified at the advice he had been given. There is no way the Tullow man would have lasted in a country where the playing demands are twice that of Ireland.
O'Brien is 26 which, if he continues to stay fit, would give him four years at best at the top. Heaslip at 30 could have four lucrative years in France to pad out his pension. Four more years of physical attrition may not give 'The Tank' that luxury when he reaches 30.
For domestic rugby it is great news. Ireland will struggle without O'Brien, who performs two tasks in tandem that I've never seen equalled in half a century of watching the game.
He is far and away Ireland's best ball carrier, while continuing to function as a ball-winner on the ground as an open side flanker. He is the best No 6, 7 and 8 in Ireland. No other player in history could do that at the highest level. His absence has been the biggest reason for Leinster's sub-standard, albeit winning, performances. Last week the Castres back-row was given the freedom of the park because Leinster posed no threat with ball in hand.
There is a huge responsibility on Joe Schmidt and Matt O'Connor to nurse O'Brien through the next four years to get the best out of the player on the biggest occasions.
If Heaslip goes to France, then the opportunity is there to move O'Brien to the less-stressful position of No 8. Irish fans might be surprised by the damage that could be wreaked by a dynamic presence at the base of the scrum. For all Heaslip's talents he is predictable and less than dynamic in the open.
Sergio Parisse and Kieran Read might have a new competitor for the best No 8 in the world tag.
The key to that move is Ireland finding a first class openside flanker. It is astonishing that Ireland find it difficult to find players for that role. There are no size and weight requirements; the great Jim McCarthy and Nigel Carr were relatively small men but had pace, vision and bravery.
The problem is that as soon as a quick youngster is discovered in school he is put in the backs and a bigger, slower, less visionary player fills the slot in the back-row. Schmidt and O'Connor need to do some missionary work to make No 7 a sought-after shirt. A rugby equivalent of 'Voice of Ireland'.
I am immensely cheered by O'Brien's decision and I look forward to more dynamic performances from a player who has the inestimable ability to warm the cockles of hearts young and old.