Friday 19 January 2018

Straight-talking Sean O'Brien demands big improvement

Flanker insists Leinster need to up the ante in showdown with Ulster

Sean O’Brien in action during Leinster training in UCD Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Sean O’Brien in action during Leinster training in UCD Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Sean O'Brien, Leinster, is tackled by Alasdair Dickinson, Edinburgh
Leinster's Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen
David Kelly

David Kelly

There are those who reckon, with the imminent departure of their most two recent long-term captains, Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll, that Sean O'Brien stands poised to lead his home province.

If such a scenario transpires, the culture of expectancy will not be stemmed one whit.

Because, as he demonstrated so forcefully with his no-nonsense refusal to blithely accept defeat for Ireland against the All Blacks last November, O'Brien remains aloof from any acceptance of depressed standards.

Hence his appraisal of the challenge presented by Ulster in this weekend's RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final and, more pointedly, his side's preparedness for the internecine bout, demands recognition.

"I don't think we're favourites," he asserts before adding a stinging rejoinder to those who reckon Leinster are, like last year, shoo-in champions.

"We've been a bit off the pace in the last week or two and they've been in good form, playing some good rugby.

"It was a big win at the weekend for them down at Munster and it was significant with a second-string team they had out, they were resting a lot of lads.

"So they'll be fresh and ready to go this weekend and I'm sure they're playing much better rugby than we have of late."

The latter point is the one that concerns Leinster supporters the most, as it will the squad in their private moments; even Jono Gibbes was taken aback by the dearth of quality against Edinburgh last weekend.

Particularly as it was repugnant to one of the most invigorated warm-ups of his successful tenure with a club he will, too, depart at the end of the month.

Had he detected the flatness in the display that threatened to send thousands into the deepest of slumbers?

"Funny you should say that because I walked back into the changing shed and said to Greg Feek, 'I think that was a really good warm-up,'" the forwards coach smiles.

"Then they went out and played like that. Sometimes I walk off the field and go, 'Holy shit' and they come out ready."

Not an exact science, then, albeit Leinster have developed a culture where external factors should never intrude on their self-propelled drive for excellence.

"It's a combination of a few things," he concedes. "Mentally, we weren't as switched on as we needed to be. Edinburgh played physically and were really combative.

"Finally, our scrum and line-out didn't get going. The consistent supply of ball to get us into the game how we wanted to never really happened.

"Just after half-time, we had a couple of opportunities to kind of extinguish their desire and we just didn't do it. It just ended up being an 80-minute arm wrestle. There are some things we just need to get right.

"You can talk about the fact that the play-offs were around the corner and perhaps the players weren't mentally ready. But there was a lot riding on that game. There were two points that we had to get.

"There were opportunities for a number of guys who hadn't been selected for a number of weeks. That's the disappointing thing about it. We're in a play-off now so we have to park that and make sure we project forward.


"We need to be ready for Ulster. We can't get bogged down looking back. They're going to be coming back pretty loaded."

O'Brien, who underwent shoulder surgery late last year, has an unexpected shot at trophy glory, having watched in equally frustrating measure both Ireland's championship success, when Chris Henry snaffled his place so competently, and Leinster's Heineken Cup exit.

He hasn't invested so much desire to make a comeback ahead of schedule to blow this chance.

"It's very important and it's probably something we spoke about as well, it's something you think about as an individual and a player that you want to win some silverware during the year and this is our last shot.

"There's no second chances now this weekend and we're going to be doing everything in our power to put it away.

"Chris was obviously playing that position during the Six Nations but I'm not too fussed about getting into an individual battle. It's more about the collective thing this weekend.

"It's not Ireland this week, we're not competing for the same jersey and hopefully I'll be able playing against him.

"When you get into individual battles you make mistakes and you do stupid stuff so it's about the team this weekend.

"You know, they've so much experience and loads of talent so they're a very, very dangerous side.

"They've always been close games in the past. With the quality they have you'd have to respect it."

O'Brien's return should help to raise the standards. It's been great that he got 50 minutes after a long injury lay-off," notes Gibbes.

"He's done a lot of conditioning and simulation stuff but there's nothing like playing a game. It's really good to have him around out on the training ground. He just has a very settling presence. He's not a complicated person.

"And he doesn't compromise much either. And that brings a good focus to the rest of the group as well."

O'Brien wants that influence to bear for more than just this week; a final beckons again but Leinster must be better.

"I suppose getting 50 minutes in a very stop-start game, I don't really know where I am as such," he says.

"I didn't get my second wind as such or a big blow-out. It was very sloppy at the weekend but this weekend I'm sure it'll be different."

It will have to be.

Irish Independent

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