Thursday 12 December 2019

A new Sean O'Brien has arrived - and he has eyes on the top

Like his namesake, Clarinbridge-born back-row is plotting a direct route to the ultimate prize

Sean O'Brien has had some injury setbacks but continues to be one of the hottest prospects in the game (SPORTSFILE)
Sean O'Brien has had some injury setbacks but continues to be one of the hottest prospects in the game (SPORTSFILE)

Daragh Small

Injury has played a major part in the short career of Sean O'Brien, as he continues to mould into one of the hottest prospects to don a green jersey on this island in recent years.

Whether it was the heart-breaking stress fracture that denied him the opportunity to captain his country on the other side of the world, or the barrage of injuries that hit his province before Christmas, it has continued to affect his chances of game-time.

But the 21-year-old back-row wants to create his own destiny in 2016. Galway born and bred, there was only ever one club, one county, one province and one country for the Clarinbridge native. Whether it was in hurling or rugby O'Brien has remained loyal, with only education causing him to deviate off course along the way.

It would be the fairytale story if one day he would fulfil his potential and go on to lead his country at senior level - the ideal payback after the misfortune that befell him prior to the World U-20 Championships in 2014.

However in rugby nothing is certain, therefore the Galwegians clubman is ensuring his education remains as back-up. But a fresh development deal at the Sportsground is the reward for eight appearances in just over two months since he made his debut for the province.

It would only be fair that he gets a clear run of it now. The former Ireland U-19 and U-20 captain has clarity about his future. And he knows the crucial building blocks lie ahead in the coming months - he wants to help Connacht reach their Champions Cup destiny first.

"We all sat down at the beginning of the season with Pat (Lam), and we sat out our goals. Mine was that I wanted to be a regular starter," he says.

"I am still not there yet, but I am working towards it. Hopefully I can perform well enough to end up there by the end of the year, and help the team reach its goal too."

Injury to a number of fellow back-rows provided O'Brien with the chance to get into the matchday 23. But he had grasp that and make himself an invaluable option for Lam. It's no coincidence that he has missed out just once since his first game, against Enisei-STM in November.

And eventually the contract offer came. Once he returned from injury and retained his fitness it seemed a mere formality the final year Civil Law student at NUI Galway was going to justify his place at the province.


It was the turn of 2016 when he penned the deal, the prize for 15 years of hard work.

"I began at Galwegians when I was five or six. My dad Iain was a big rugby head. He loved Galwegians. My granddad Frank worked in the bar there. So I had a big enough connection with Galwegians."

O'Brien also played hurling with Clarinbridge, but he knew in his heart there was only ever going to be one sport for him. And after his dad passed away in November 2012, the drive to become a professional was just as strong.

"I always had aspirations to be a professional rugby player. My dad coached me the whole way up. It was a big thing for the two of us, we always enjoyed rugby," he says.

He advanced his dreams further when he enrolled in Cistercian College Roscrea. There was a brief hiatus with Calasanctius College Oranmore for Junior Cert and fifth year - he won a Connacht Junior Cup back in his native county, before he returned to the Tipperary nursery.

The prospective Ireland underage star was already lacing up his boots at Connacht academy trials every summer. And after he captained Roscrea to a Leinster Schools Cup semi-final, he finished up and joined the Connacht academy.

Everything was going right for O'Brien; he started in the second-row for four of Ireland Six Nations fixtures.

Leinster's Dan Leavy injured his shoulder against England, and that gave O'Brien the captaincy. At the time he thought the slight niggle in his right foot was just a sprain, but it ended up crushing his dreams of leading his country in New Zealand.

"It was heartbreaking, I can't sugar-coat it too much. I was heartbroken for a couple of weeks afterwards. I had really built up to going out there and wanting to do well.

"We don't actually know what happened. It turned out to be a stress fracture of my navicular which is rare enough.

"But it is quite hard to heal and that was the problem.

"I had what they thought was a capsule sprain in my foot, and I had it since the start of the Six Nations. And they said it wouldn't get any worse by playing on it.

"So I just continued to play through the Six Nations. By the end of it, it had got a lot worse so I was sent off for a scan. It showed up that I had got a fracture in my foot. But that is the way that sport works sometimes."

Munster's Jack O'Donoghue took the captaincy and Ireland finished fourth.

Just 18 months down the line the two good friends and back-rows would come face to face in O'Brien's first Pro12 outing.

"I had played over in Siberia, and then that was my Pro12 debut against Munster in Thomond," he explains. "It was a great occasion and a great experience for me. I was very lucky, my first game down there, to get the win it was a dream come true."

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