O'Connor urges troops to fill void left by 'world-class' O'Brien
WHETHER or not he will have to do without Sean O'Brien in the long-term remains to be seen, but Matt O'Connor is getting an unplanned and unwanted dry run nonetheless.
Leinster have been robbed of the flanker's power, defensive prowess and ability in the tackle until late April at least after the Tullow man underwent surgery on his shoulder injury last Friday and, rather than ask one player to fill the huge void he leaves, the coach is looking for the entire pack to pick up the slack.
O'Brien's unique abilities have made him the province's and Ireland's go-to man for momentum-building carries and there are concerns that, without him, the two teams have been robbed of their major weapon.
Whether they can compensate remains to be seen and Sunday's trip to Castres should be a good litmus test of Leinster's capacity to replace such an important player.
"Sean is world-class," the Australian said yesterday. "At the ball, carrying the ball, his intimidation in defence -- all those things are massive. We won't be looking for one individual, or two individuals to fill that void.
"We will be asking the group to deliver on those things across the board because he's such a special player."
One man who appeared to make up for some of the lost momentum in last week's win over Connacht was Jamie Heaslip, with the Ireland vice-captain noticeably more physical in O'Brien's absence.
The Naas native acts as a foil for O'Brien when they play together, but the abrasive version of Heaslip, trucking the ball up in close contact and earning the hard yards, was a throwback to his early career.
"What Jamie does particularly well is bring other players into the game," O'Connor said of his other in-demand star.
"If he's got Sean on his shoulder, who will carry the ball through a brick wall for him, he'll use him; if that doesn't happen there's other skills in and around him and if Jamie's the best bloke to carry the ball for us, he'll stand up and carry the ball.
"I think we are good in the sense that in Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Mike McCarthy and Jordi Murphy, there's a lot of blokes that'll stick their hand up to carry the ball for us. I don't think we'll be wanting on Sunday."
The three-times champions' task in looking to beat the French champions may have been eased somewhat by news that Rory Kockott and Antonie Claassen are unlikely to figure at the Stade Pierre Antoine.
That would deprive Castres of their main goal-kicker and their best forward and O'Connor admitted that their absence would be likely to hinder the home effort.
"They're massive for them -- Kockott gives them so much, kicks all of their goals and Claassen leads the forward pack so well; he's a threat with the ball and at the base (of the scrum)," he said.
"That will change the dynamics a little bit, but they've got a good squad, with good players across the whole group so we'll just have to make those adjustments when we know who is and isn't playing."
O'Connor should be able to call on Rhys Ruddock and Aaron Dundon, despite their injury woes, while there has been some talk of a shock return by Cian Healy.
The coach says the controversial five-day turnaround is unlikely to have a bearing on his selection.
"It probably comes into the training volume as much as anything else and making sure that the guys have got plenty in their legs for Sunday because it's going to be a massive ask," he said.
"They're a good side. They're big. They're physical. They lose very rarely there. We've got to make sure that we are peaking on Sunday. You get the result and it changes it slightly."