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O'Brien: I'd love to play

Tullow Tank can't see Ireland comeback but targets Lions


Seán O’Brien wants to do it all again at London Irish. Photo: Sportsfile

Seán O’Brien wants to do it all again at London Irish. Photo: Sportsfile

Seán O’Brien wants to do it all again at London Irish. Photo: Sportsfile

Seán O'Brien is not shy about his ambition. He has been there, done it and wants to do it all again.

The Tullow Tank has not been able to rumble for some time. He last played for Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup final defeat to Saracens on May 11, 2019 and his London Irish career has been limited to 48 minutes in a 39-0 hammering against Sale Sharks in early March.

Given it's been so little rugby in such a long time, talk of Ireland call-ups and Lions tours may seem far-fetched but if he can get back to his best O'Brien remains the stand out back-row in Irish rugby.

The if is the problem, but the player himself believes that, having undergone surgery to resurface his hip joint he is ready to return to the fray in better shape than he's been in for some time.

If, and it remains a big if, the 33-year-old can get back to the level that made him an automatic international starter and Test Lion, then he will surely test Andy Farrell's commitment to the rule that governs the non-selection of overseas players.

The next two months will test him.

Starting with Saturday's opener away to Bath, London Irish face nine games in seven weeks as the Premiership rushes to play all postponed matches in contrast to the the PRO14 which has settled on two rounds of action before the play-offs.

Head coach les Kiss confirmed that they'll use O'Brien somewhat sparingly, but he is relishing the challenge to test his body out.

"I've gotten through the most training I've ever done in my career, which has been brilliant," he says.

"I've a really good base, a big pre-season into me, and always in the past when I've had a good pre-season and a good run of rugby.

"I know it's challenging as well, it will be pretty challenging six-to-eight weeks but it will be managed by the coaches with squad rotation."

Although his return match ended up with an "embarassing" result, it was a moment of pride for a player who has been through the wars.

"It was a hugely exciting week after 10 months of doing rehab and coming back from a hip resurfacing. No other rugby player had done it and the thing I had said from the off when I went for the operation was that I'm going to do it," he recalls.

"I was incredibly happy afterwards. And it was the same in the days after it, no ill effects and it was just like a normal rugby game to me.

"Covid hit then and it stuffed it up for us. It is what it is. In one way it was a little bit disappointing and in another way I said 'right, take this as an opportunity now to really take time and get yourself even to a better place'."

The hip has been fully tested.

"It's not as if I'm going round with a bib on me saying 'Lads, don't come near me'," O'Brien laughs. There's lads flying into me over here and I'm flying into them and it's rugby as normal for me."

The relentless schedule will put him in the shop window, but he doesn't think Farrell will be watching.

Since Johnny Sexton returned to Ireland from his stint in Racing 92 in 2016, no player based abroad has been selected to play for Ireland.

Asked about Racing's Simon Zebo last week, Farrell said: "The unwritten rule is there to protect Irish rugby, so I'm all for that."

O'Brien believes the union will hold firm, even if he hits top form.

Rule in Place

"I wouldn't say disappointed," he says when Farrell's comments are put to him. "You know when you sign a contract when you're leaving Ireland that that's the rule in place over there as such, so that's life and you get on with it.

"From the point of view of you playing really well and other people not playing really well, you kind of think that you can still add value to the set-up but that's completely up to the coaches and the rules they have in place.

"If the rule wasn't there, would I love to play for Ireland? Of course I would. I'd love to play for Ireland every weekend. But that's just the way it is at the minute, and it's not something I'm thinking too much about."

Still, we wonder, could a run of top form force them into a re-think?

"Well to be honest with you, the way it is at the minute I don't think that will ever happen even," he adds.

Even if he can't break back in with Ireland, O'Brien is targeting another Lions tour to South Africa at the end of next season.

"I'd be dead straight with you, it's something I haven't ruled out," he says. "It would obviously be a massive honour to be in that position, If I could play well enough for London Irish over the rest of this season and next season."