Saturday 24 February 2018

O'Brien craves Holy Trinity role

Ireland's Sean O'Brien goes through his paces during training ahead of Saturday's clash with Samoa. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ireland's Sean O'Brien goes through his paces during training ahead of Saturday's clash with Samoa. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

When Declan Kidney selected his back-row last week, he conceded with little difficulty that the combination of Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip remains his front-line option.

The Grand Slam Holy Trinity are widely expected to start the next World Cup and the trio were among the small minority who escaped excoriation after the dismal defeat to the Springboks last weekend.

And yet there are suggestions from within the Irish camp that Wallace's impact may not extend into the World Cup, and that Sean O'Brien deserves to stake a permanent claim.

Having used a lengthy injury sabbatical to dramatically improve the suspect handling skills previously frowned upon by his coaches, O'Brien has announced himself as the hard-hitting, ball-playing back-row Ireland's new playing style requires.


Wallace rightly retains his status as Ireland's best ball-carrier, yet the feeling among some of the Ireland brains trust is that the team require something different from their No 7. O'Brien may be the key.

The Carlow man's performance against Samoa will not of itself answer that conjecture, but if it sows enough seeds of doubt, it could ensure him a start against the All Blacks, giving an opportunity for him to present a resounding argument to the head coach.

"I suppose it is a good opportunity for me against a tough side," says O'Brien, whose measured responses betray the fact that the 23-year-old is himself a coach. He has also captained Leinster this season, a tribute to his status within their squad. No speaking from the heart here, then.

"Hopefully, I'll have a good game and it's all up in the air then. I'm happy with my form. I just want to get my own roles right and have a good game. I haven't played in around two weeks, so I'm looking forward to playing again. The competition in the back-row is unbelievable.

"There's a lot of experienced lads there. I'm the youngest fella and that doesn't stand to me at times. But at the other end of it, I'm young and eager and determined to make a point.

"David Wallace has been there a long time now, he's a great player and sound in every aspect of the game. It's just that getting in there every week to try and prove your point has been a hard thing."

O'Brien's career has already hampered by a season-ending leg break last February and the potential inhibition caused by a rare act of indiscipline against Treviso in September that, mercifully, did not result in an investigation by the Magners League authorities.

Since that September incident, it is noticeable that O'Brien has become a much more reserved and defensive personality than the bubbly type that first burst onto the Leinster scene. The stakes are clearly getting higher.

"I don't think it has been hard to be patient -- it's not as if I'm at the end of my career. I'm only young and I'm getting experience all the time, even in training which is great.

"And I'm constantly learning new things from those lads. You have to stay patient. Because if you get down about it all, it won't be good for your game. I'm happy with the way my game has gone.

"There is competition. If you're playing well enough, you'll get a shout and that's all you want. There's no hierarchy set in stone."

When he was sidelined for the Six Nations with the leg break sustained against the Scarlets in February, he admitted to despising his role as a spectator.

The relentless rehabilitation process pursued those demons from his mind. Yet last Saturday, the nagging feeling returned.

"I suppose it is a strange feeling," he confirms as he comes in from the cold to start this Saturday.

"Last week, we were in the same situation. But in training lads have to up the game and train against everyone else.

"It's week in, week out and everyone battling against each other. You can never slack off in training because nobody is always in or always out. It's our profession and we have to train at our peak whether you're in or out of the team."

You can hear the former Tullow coach talking again. Or can you?

"No, that's the player," he smiles. And just for emphasis. "That's the player."

Irish Independent

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