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Sean O'Brien - I'll come back stronger than ever

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Sean O'Brien watches on during Leinster squad training

Sean O'Brien watches on during Leinster squad training

Sean O'Brien watches on during Leinster squad training

THE TULLOW TANK - two-legged - pitched up at Fairyhouse on Tuesday to watch his equine namesake canter to a convincing win on his chasing debut.

Sean O'Brien used to own a piece of the erstwhile classy jumper before the horse was embroiled in some, ahem, well-publicised complications; now re-routed by owner Barry Connell to Dessie Hughes in the Curragh, the future looks brighter than ever.

"He looked great for a first-timer," smiles O'Brien, as he winds his way through the hills towards Carlow.

"I'm not disappointed we let him go, he's in good hands now. I'm glad to see him going well. I've a few other bits and pieces but hardly anything worth talking about at the moment."

And what of his own fitness?

O'Brien is no fledgling in overcoming obstacles himself; where once they were mere trifling hurdles, a steady accumulation of woe has caused the fences to resemble Becher's in their increasing difficulty.

In recent times, he has had to rehabilitate a damaged thumb, knee, ankle, hip, then a shoulder problem that needed surgery; the latter forced him out of last year's Six Nations title win.

Surgery

This season, as he struggled with another ankle issue that also required surgery, the shoulder problem flared up again; an infection had set in during the original operation, forcing him to spend an entire week connected to an IV drip; every night he would set the alarm in order to take on more antibiotics.

In essence, the graft didn't knit in his shoulder because of the bacterial infection. And so another six months of quiet, intense rehab must ensue; at 27, his body is betraying him with worrying regularity but he remains resolutely determined that he can return fitter, faster and stronger than ever.

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"It's just another hurdle to get over," he says, tossing an unwitting reference to his jump racing passion.

"I'm not concerned about me playing rugby or not playing rugby, especially compared to the way some people might be. I know myself that certain things can happen with injuries. It feels a lot different this time, there's no infection. I'm very confident that if it can heal properly, there will be no issue."

With retirements steadily graduating from season to season, and injuries mounting up generally to a scarifying degree, there can be no guarantees; but O'Brien genuinely is not contemplating any immediate threat to his livelihood.

"Some people might say there's uncertainty," he says. "But I know that if the bone had healed properly the last time, there would have been no issues. There was just one piece of bone that didn't heal properly because of the infection. This time that bone seems to have healed perfectly because there have been no setbacks like the last time. There's been no infection.

"So I'm not thinking negatively about it, I'm not worrying that if something happens, where does that leave me? It's part and parcel of rugby. I just have to motor on and get back as strong as I was before."

The other concerns from the bar stool or the comfortable couch centre upon O'Brien's all-action style and how - or if - it can be tempered in any way to militate against such a steady recurrence of debilitating injury.

Impossible, counters the player himself.

"Why should I change?" he responds robustly. "If my shoulder heals properly, and it does everything it is supposed to be, I won't be changing anything.

"Loads of guys have had their shoulders done at different ages and they've been able to perform. It's one of those things, I was very unfortunate to get a really bad infection."

There was some concern amongst his supporters that Leinster had attempted to rush his return to the fray this term, especially after he had enjoyed the relative luxury of a comprehensive pre-season for the first time in three summers.

If anything, he counters again, that was due to his own impatient urge tugging at his sleeve, rather than external forces.

"That was down to me a lot," he admits. "I felt my shoulder was as good as it had been, it felt good. I was hitting all my targets. Everything was going well. I was fulfilling all the protocols.

"It was just more an impact problem. I'd probably do a little more contact in the weeks leading up to my return. I wouldn't change anything else from that end of it.

"It's not the way I wanted this season to go ideally. But I've been dealt the cards and I need to get myself into a good place again.

"I thought I was in a good place after the first operation. But gradually as I got into training, and I began to feel more and more contact, I felt that something wasn't completely right. So I had to get it sorted."

At the moment, there is limited mobility in his shoulder at this early stage - a month out - in the post-operative process.

"I'm doing okay," he says. "All is coming along nicely so I'm happy enough at the moment. It's all very basic at the minute. I'm just starting to get functional movement back in the shoulder, I'm starting on a bike.

"It's very boring in the first four or five weeks. I've just been letting the shoulder settle.

"I'm trying not to put a timeline on it just because I won't know until I get a full range of motion and get properly into running and weights. Then I can progress it as quick as we want it to.

"The time limit is six months, five or six months is on it at the minute. All things been equal."

All things are not equal for Irish rugby at the moment; he and Cian Healy head the list of extensive Irish casualties which will curtail the ball-carrying ability of the side. He expresses little certainty of the reasoning behind such a worrying trend but is, at least, sure that his colleagues can cope with the added burden.

"They can cope," he insists. "There are an awful lot of good players available to fill in for guys. They have more experience coming in off the bench last November, during the Six Nations and the summer. I've no doubt they can play well. Leinster have shown they can cope with high-pressure games despite losing players.

"Players who thought they should be in the team anyway will be fired up to perform. They're well capable of performing."


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