Friday 20 September 2019

Cian Tracey: ''Iconic' O'Brien back to his awesome best at just the right time for Leinster and Ireland'

Tactics talk: Forwards’ skills under pressure come to the fore once again for Leinster in the build-up to stunning Lowe try

Sean O'Brien of Leinster charges upfield during the Champions Cup Semi Final match between Leinster and Toulouse. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Sean O'Brien of Leinster charges upfield during the Champions Cup Semi Final match between Leinster and Toulouse. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Last Monday, Stuart Lancaster called on Sean O'Brien to deliver a big performance, and the response he got was emphatic.

It has been a while since we have seen O'Brien at his barnstorming best, but this was pretty close as he moved through the gears at a rate of knots.

At 32 and given the amount of punishment that the Tullow flanker has taken over the years, understandably, it takes the body that bit longer to recover.

With Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier already sidelined and then when Rhys Ruddock pulled out at the last minute through illness, there was an even bigger onus on O'Brien to step up in the biggest game of Leinster's season.

Prior to the defeat to Glasgow recently, O'Brien spoke about wanting to get his hands on more ball.

It sounded as if he felt it was the last missing piece of the jigsaw and so it proved, as time and time again he offered himself as a willing and powerful carrier.

Only the freakish James Ryan (18), who invariably tops the carries count, made more than O'Brien (12) as he served up a timely reminder of his undoubted quality.

"I thought he had a class game," Ryan said of his team-mate.

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"He is one of the main leaders in the team. He always speaks so well.

"He has been around a long time and this is his last few weeks in the club that he has given so much to.

"He is one of the most iconic Leinster players in the professional era. That will be another motivating factor for us - if we can go out with him on a high, it would be great."

It wasn't just the work that O'Brien did with ball in hand either. He was hugely effective around the breakdown, while his defensive shift for 80 minutes was immense as he made 14 tackles.

And then there was his crucial role in James Lowe's try that we highlighted above. That little burst of acceleration through the gap and then the awareness to play the offload to Lowe was indicative of a player who is full of confidence in both his body and his skills.

Bowing out of the European stage with a fourth Heineken Champions Cup medal would be the most fitting of swan songs. That is now very much a reality.

"Seanie is an unbelievable competitor," Leo Cullen enthused.

"He's worked incredibly hard to get back from his injury and you can see what it means to Seanie, the way he plays.

"Physically, he throws everything he has into his performances. I thought he was really exceptional today.

"It's not just his performance, it's how he leads the group. How he understands the threats the opposition are going to pose on both sides of the ball.

"In terms of dominating that contact area, he is one of the best players to have ever played the game, certainly Irish guys, in that area.

"I think he's showing again what he's capable of. It was good to have Seanie back."

O'Brien's return to form also bodes well for Ireland, especially with Dan Leavy missing the World Cup.

As Cullen alluded to, his leadership is unquestionable and that is always evident from hearing on the ref mic how well he speaks to those around him.

A few eyebrows were raised when Toulouse didn't select a natural openside and Leinster exploited that as the French side were unable to slow down their ball, thanks to the industrious work of O'Brien and Co at the breakdown.

Gulf

Saracens will provide a stiffer test as the semi-final results showed just how much of a gulf there is between the two best teams in Europe and the rest.

O'Brien promised that there was much more to come from him and he is already delivering on that.

He wouldn't be human if he didn't doubt that he could hit these kinds of heights again, but now that O'Brien has, Leinster and Ireland will reap the rewards before he starts a new chapter with London Irish.

Leinster 1 (Read-Only).png
1 Leinster win an attacking scrum on the halfway line and set up with Robbie Henshaw (green) on the blindside. Luke McGrath is a clever support runner and his line (black) off Johnny Sexton (yellow) is crucial. Garry Ringrose runs a decoy (red) with Rob Kearney (blue) arcing around to collect McGrath’s pass after Sexton feeds him.
Leinster 2 (Read-Only).png
2The Toulouse defence is scrambling as Kearney makes good ground. A hallmark of Leinster’s success in recent years has been the skill-set of their players regardless of the number on their back and that was evident again here. Devin Toner steps in as first receiver and note how he sucks in two defenders before playing a lovely reverse pass to Sexton (red).
Leinster 3 (Read-Only).png
3Henshaw shows great footwork to break the gain line before Sean Cronin (twice), James Ryan, Luke McGrath, Jack Conan and Ringrose make strong carries. That sets up a scenario where Ryan follows Toner’s lead in stepping in as play-maker and he throws another good pass out the back for Sexton, which creates a significant overlap on the left.
Leinster 4 (Read-Only).png
4 Cian Healy powers forward off Sexton’s pass before playing a sumptuous offload for Cronin, who makes his third effective carry in a matter of seconds. Seán O’Brien spots a gap (yellow) and tears through it. The flanker maintains his composure to make the try-scoring pass when tackled. James Lowe (blue) holds his width and crashes over for a stunning team try.

No redemption story for Vunipola

As narratives go, they don’t come much more nauseating than

what was created on television around Billy Vunipola against Munster.

After what was described as the “toughest week of his life”, it was forgotten in this whole mess that Vunipola brought it all upon himself.

The Saracens No 8 has shown no remorse since his slap on the rest for his homophobic views in support of Israel Folau and when he was given the platform during his man-of-the-match interview, Vunipola doubled down on his controversial views when he said “I wanted to back up my words.”

Rugby holds itself to high moral values but there is no doubt that image has been damaged recently.

Making out that Vunipola’s try on Saturday was some kind of redemption was so far wide of the mark. As an industry and as a society in general, we have got to be better than this.

O'Gara can add fresh ideas to Munster attack

One of their own is currently one of the most sought-after coaches in the world and with Munster’s attacking game-plan seemingly in need of fresh impetus, one wonders if the club’s hierarchy will soon be tempted to lure Ronan O’Gara back home.

While in no way suggesting that Munster are in need of a complete overhaul, a new voice within the set-up could go some way to bringing more of a cutting edge.

O’Gara is coaching the best club team in the southern hemisphere and with his Crusaders contract up at the end of the season, Munster should at least explore the possibility.

There is a reason the former out-half is in demand

and while it remains to be seen if O’Gara would be

open to coming back just yet, it is a conversation worth having.

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