Sunday 19 November 2017

O'Brien's tailored approach can carry the day -- Schmidt

David Kelly

David Kelly

The awards keep rolling in for Sean O'Brien. On Thursday, it was the Texaco Sport Star gong.

But is the Tullow tank spluttering? Did not the Welsh dragon slay from below the knees? And what about Gorgodzilla and Co gang-tackling him in Montpellier?

Indubitably, O'Brien is not exploding holes in opposition defences with the frightening ferocity that he attained last season. Arguably, though, he is an even more effective all-round performer.

Against Cardiff last week, O'Brien made 21 carries -- around one every four minutes of game-time. Hardly a diminution of his powers; rather a portrait of the supreme team player.

"I'm sure people have espoused the second-season syndrome," says the man who knows him more intimately than most, Leinster coach Joe Schmidt.

"Guys blast on to the scene one year and the following year everybody knows who Sean O'Brien is. He's European Player of the Year so therefore he's a lot more targeted by opposition teams in their defensive strategy.

"I think the same would be true to say for Richardt Strauss as well. He was under-rated last year and now suddenly people have a lot more respect around what he can do when he's offering to carry. So they line up on him and tend to shut down his time and space.

"Against Cardiff, Sean did really well. They may not be the type of ball carries that one might normally expect with great big holes being created in teams. But his work rate hasn't been reduced.

"So what he's offering us now is an extremely high volume of work. And hopefully if it's not Sean who's benefiting from that, it will be other players."

O'Brien has admitted in the aftermath of those particularly bracing encounters, in the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Wales and the Heineken Cup draw away to Montpellier, that he has had to subtly adjust his approach.

"The ruck is a big thing for me in terms of improvement," he told this newspaper last month. "It is changing all the time. There are different approaches and you have to be a lot smarter now around that area.

"The other thing is link play with the backs. That's a thing I'm working on. I am using my hands a little bit more and getting the ball away from that initial point of contact."

And, while Schmidt revealed that he hasn't radically altered his approach in terms of his bulldozing ball carrier, there has been an imperceptible shift in emphasis for the most marked man in European rugby.

"We haven't changed our game plan," admits Schmidt. The concession may be that O'Brien's all-action style has been tailored slightly to accommodate his ball-carrying colleagues.


"We have a team-orientated game plan and while that allows for the individual strengths of certain players, I firmly believe that Sean O'Brien is a very good seven, an outstanding six and a very capable eight. He plays all those positions.

"Against Cardiff, he got two steals on the ground. He's very strong once he gets clamped to that ball. He's very low to the ground and hard to shift.

"I know people are looking for blockbusting ball carries but I think there are other elements to Sean's game which make him a little bit more complete than just a ball carrier."

All that being said, the Super Mario figure who trucked his way through defences last season and during the earlier pool games in New Zealand -- "if there aren't any holes, I'll make 'em," he had memorably forewarned the world -- isn't scaring seven shades out of the viewers watching in HD.

"I don't think he's as visible," Schmidt concedes. "There's a lot of potential energy there which hasn't quite become kinetic energy yet. We'd certainly like to see him with a couple of more blockbusting ball carries."

Schmidt seems to be expecting tomorrow's lunchtime clash to be a bit of a slog as his selection is both tailored to the potentially wet sod and also with an eye on the mere six-day turnaround until the return clash against the Premiership strugglers.

The 'horses for courses' metaphor applies to hard-running Fergus McFadden, who shares Denman's liking for the soft sod compared to the top-of-the-ground dancer Eoin O'Malley.

O'Malley will return to midfield next week. Cian Healy is benched tomorrow as he continues his steady return to full tilt. Likewise Devin Toner, replaced by Damian Browne, who is also likely to start next week at Lansdowne Road.

The uninjured Steven Sykes, not included amongst either first or second-string Leinster squads this weekend, is less likely to feature, one suspects.

Leinster's strong bench indicates a side prepared to wait until the final quarter if necessary to grind out the win.


"We don't want to do what we did in Montpellier," says Schmidt in reference to the comeback draw in France last month. "We'd like to start well and build pressure on the scoreboard. That's definitely any team's intention. It is a 23-man game and with the quality on the bench, they can offer us something in that last 30 minutes."

Bath's form is woeful but if the pitch turns into a pudding, they may fancy their chances were they to achieve an early foothold. Their backline is brimming with burly beef and big boots, albeit light on subtlety.

An emergency hooker may negate a pack who normally perform with a minimal game plan in mind; if Leinster can go through phases, the English side's defence exponentially withers, on the basis of this season's evidence.

"Ideally we'd love to play a bit but it will be determined by weather and surface conditions," says Schmidt.

To that end, the four points will be the main aim before they seek to take charge of this pool in the return leg.

Verdict: Leinster

Bath v Leinster,

Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports, 12.30

Bath -- N Abendanon; J Cuthbert, D Hipkiss, O Barkley, M Banahan; S Donald, M Claassens; D Flatman, C Biller, D Wilson; D Attwood, R Caldwell; F Louw (capt), G Mercer, S Taylor.

Reps: C Beech, N Catt, A Perenise, W Spencer, A Beattie, C Cook, T Heathcote, S Vesty.

Leinster -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; H Van Der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Browne; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, C Healy, N White, D Toner, S Jennings, E Reddan, I Madigan, E O'Malley.

REF -- J Garces (France) .

Irish Independent

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