O'Brien keen to front up from the back row
IT is hard to think of another Ireland selection over the last 20 years that has prompted as much anticipation as Sean O'Brien's inclusion at No 8 in the team to face Italy tomorrow.
Simon Geoghegan's first cap against France in 1991 and Denis Hickie's selection against Wales in '97 both caused a stir due to the wingers' pace and try-scoring instincts, while Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer getting picked against Scotland in 2000 arrived with the promise of a new era for Irish half-back play, which they duly delivered.
But those were all debuts. O'Brien already has four caps to his name and tomorrow, in his most effective ball-carrying position at No 8, is seen as the occasion when he will announce himself as an international force.
A series of stunning performances for Leinster have set the bar incredibly high and ramped up the expectation to stratospheric levels, so much so that, when Ireland coach Declan Kidney listed O'Brien's qualities this week, he stressed that he didn't want "to put the hex on him".
O'Brien's non-traditional rugby upbringing in Carlow has been well documented and he will be well aware of the GAA superstition that being talked up beforehand puts the jinx on the weekend.
He was never going to come out Muhammad Ali-style this week and talk about the havoc he would wreak on the opposition. However, the 23-year-old is good enough to wreak exactly that.
It is not just O'Brien's powerful, well-distributed build and speed off the mark, it is his ability (all too rare in the modern game) to attack the ball at pace with good timing and clever angles of running.
Throw in an intense physicality in all areas of the game and you have a player ready to explode upon the Six Nations. Caveats are minor by comparison -- it has been noted that he tends to go to ground rather than off-load and that he is a couple of inches shorter than established back-row line-out jumpers such as Julien Bonnaire, Imanol Harinordoquy and tomorrow's opponent Sergio Parisse.
However, O'Brien's distribution skills are on the up under Joe Schmidt at Leinster and, though he can do nothing about his height (and may be sensitive to that fact), his line-out skills have earned the approbation of no less a judge than Paul O'Connell; not being 6ft 5ins is irrelevant when you have a player this effective, you just get him on the pitch.
After three cameos, O'Brien started his first Test in the niggly contest with Samoa in November at open-side and got dragged into a dour affair. At No 8, with the potential of the same Mike Ross-driven scrum platform he enjoys at Leinster, there is the opportunity to cut loose, combined with the determination to make a statement.
"That day (against Samoa) was never going to be a flash game," said O'Brien. "I didn't think I had a bad game, it was just a battle. It wasn't very open, I wasn't making line breaks. Maybe I could have got another shout (in the subsequent November Tests) if that game had been more open, but I've a point to prove now coming into this one.
"I sat down with the coaches and we went through what I could improve, things like around the breakdown and being another option in the line-out, and I brought that in when I got back with Leinster. It's an opportunity now to get in there and keep the place.
"I don't know when the lads will be back, but they'll be back some time and it's up to me this weekend."
The Tullow man's determination was fostered by having to force his way into the reckoning alongside the more heralded talents of the schools game.
"I took a lot of pride coming up through that system; it meant a lot to me staying with my home club and coming up through the ranks.
"I had the self-belief. I was very determined, very stubborn. It grows as you get into the academy and you learn very quickly. There were a few schoolboys I had a few words with when we were training first but that was ironed out fairly quickly."
And so to the Stadio Flaminio. It is clear that starting a Six Nations match represents the fulfilment of a long-held dream and, even though he receives his share of slagging from team-mates for his collection of man-of-the-match awards, it will not stop his pursuit of another one against Italy.
"I wanted to be a rugby player from a young age. The highest achievement you can get is to play for your country no matter what game it is, but the start of the Six Nations championship is special.
"I've got a bit of stick over the man-of-the-match awards all right, the lads are giving me a bit of hassle, but I can live with it ... "