Wednesday 21 February 2018

By calling out Lions’ shortcomings, Roy Keane-esque Sean O’Brien puts his hand up to captain Ireland


Sean O'Brien of the British & Irish Lions. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sean O'Brien of the British & Irish Lions. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Reading Seán O'Brien's withering assessment of the Lions coaches' shortcomings in New Zealand last summer, a couple of images of the morning after the night before came to mind.

The third Test had brought a thrilling series to an anti-climatic close in Eden Park and Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland delivered their end-of-tour thoughts to the remaining media before everyone packed up and went their separate ways.

The mood around the All Blacks was circumspect and the fury about referee Romain Poite's series-defining decision to downgrade what should have been the decisive penalty in the closing minutes was barely concealed.

Across town in Lions HQ, the mood was very different and the triumphant nature of Warren Gatland's final briefing where he reflected on a "great achievement" in coming from behind to tie.

The Lions, we are repeatedly told by the marketing men and their friends on Sky, is all about immortality.

Despite the fact they achieved a respectable draw by rescuing the series, the 2017 Lions will not live forever in rugby folklore alongside the men of 1971 because they didn't win the series.

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Whatever way the upcoming DVD dresses things up, this was a mission that did not achieve its No 1 objective.

Even when he was talking to the media about the build-up to the third Test, Sam Warburton winked at a journalist and said, 'You'll have to buy the DVD', but while it will be marketed on the fact that it goes behind the Lions' iron curtain, O'Brien's comments in Tullow RFC last Wednesday have done far more to lift the lid on the operation.

The flanker, who has started the last four Lions Tests, has done the concept some service by speaking out about what he perceives as the failings of Gatland's coaching ticket.

Overloading the training week as they played catch-up from a rigorous build-up was one issue, the lack of a cohesive attacking game-plan was another. Failing to keep the troops in check in the final week in Queenstown was another oversight in O'Brien's mind.

As soon as his comments hit the back pages, there were people ready to jump all over the Carlow native for speaking his mind.

The very same people who will bemoan a lack of colour from their sportsmen will seek to criticise them for speaking out of school and betraying the team ethic.

But surely accepting a drawn series as a good result is a deeper betrayal of team ethic. O'Brien firmly believes a 3-0 win was on the cards against a team who remain No 1 in the world, but are clearly diminished after losing so many leaders after the 2015 World Cup win.

O'Brien has gone on the record as wanting a third Lions tour to South Africa in 2021, so the political call would have been to stay quiet but he felt the need to get his dissatisfaction with the result and the factors behind it.

He has demonstrated a willingness to put his neck out that should only draw applause.

It was the kind of move Roy Keane would have been proud of when he was in a position of strength for club and country.

Like Keane, O'Brien is a generational player who commands respect of his peers and fear from his opponents. His name was never far from All Black lips whenever they were listing the Lions' strengths last summer and he has always been able to go toe-to-toe with the world's best.

Although his comments about the Lions understandably caused a furore yesterday, there was far more to the interview he gave to the daily journalists at the sponsorship event - particularly when it came to the reasons his name doesn't come up when the captaincy is discussed.

While it is not known if Joe Schmidt is considering a change of guard two years out from the 2019 World Cup, the appointment of Rory Best as Ulster skipper has set off the speculation train.

At 30, O'Brien should be a top contender but his candidacy rarely features in the discussion.

Perhaps his injury profile counts against him, but he has stated before that he'd love the job and has done it once before in a World Cup warm-up win over Scotland in 2015.

Asked about the anomaly on Wednesday, O'Brien said he reckons coaches thought he may have "burned the candle at both ends" a little too much, spending more time in his home town than they'd like and not enough time recovering and preparing for games.

Yet, there are few men in Irish rugby who command respect from their peers and opponents quite like O'Brien.

By going public on his criticism of Gatland and Rob Howley, he has shown courage in his convictions and a relentless commitment to his own high standards.

While others celebrate the 1-1 series draw, O'Brien remains angry that the victory that was on the table was allowed to pass him by.

It won't be to everybody's tastes and one wonders how Schmidt reacted when he saw the pieces that dominated the papers yesterday.

Indeed, you'd have to wonder how Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell took it all in given how integral he was to the Lions backroom staff. Although he wasn't criticised, there is a certain amount of guilt by association.

O'Brien knew the risks of speaking out and he got his feelings off his chest anyway because he felt it was in the greater good.

That's leadership, plain and simple.

He knew the risks, he knew he was giving people a stick to beat him with by raising his head above the parapet and still he remained true to himself. You couldn't ask for better qualities in a captain.



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