Monday 16 September 2019

'It's very hard to walk away' - Enforcer Seán O'Brien seeking a forceful farewell

Saracens stand between Seán O'Brien and perfect send-off to glittering career in blue

Sean O’Brien: ‘If I was offered a quarter of the money I’m getting going to London Irish to stay here, I would have stayed’
Sean O’Brien: ‘If I was offered a quarter of the money I’m getting going to London Irish to stay here, I would have stayed’
Sean O'Brien. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

When it was confirmed three months ago that Seán O'Brien was off to London Irish next season you'd be lying if, at the time, you didn't reckon it to be a remarkable bit of business. For the player as much as the club.

You probably would have said the same in 2015 when the IRFU gave O'Brien a three-year deal. For a man who traded primarily on skittling people out of his way, his career had never been one long series of massive strikes. Too often there was a yawning gap in the story caused by injury.

The IRFU's investment had been expensive. For Leinster, the next three seasons would see him start 18 games, which wouldn't seem so few if there were a raft of Test matches set alongside. But for Ireland two of the three seasons were virtual write-offs, stuck mostly in the pit lane instead of motoring around the track. So you wonder how much bang London Irish will be getting for their buck. And what sort of shape O'Brien is in now?

"Very good, probably the best I've been in, in a while," he says. "Probably since the Lions (2017), I'd say. Just trying to get over the last year, having a few jobs done. It's taken a while, y'know?"

When you're known as the Tullow Tank people expect a trail of destruction every time you play. Interestingly, the nickname didn't come from the testimony of those who had been run over by him, rather from a tabloid mate of ours who was looking for a bit of colour in a match report when O'Brien was making his way in the world. To this day he - the hack, not O'Brien - marvels at how it stuck.

If London Irish fans have been following O'Brien's career since its climax with the Lions they won't be expecting Panzer impressions week after week. Neither will head coach Declan Kidney. The Premiership is an unforgiving arena and O'Brien is being hired to wear only one shade of green, but Kidney will appreciate the realities here and you'd expect the club to make maximum use of a marquee name off the field as much as on it.

They get along well. It was Kidney who first capped O'Brien back in 2009, and by the time RWC 2011 rolled around in New Zealand, he was relying heavily on the back-rower to break down some doors.

So if the common perception of O'Brien is that he is held together with adhesive at this stage, and along comes an old mate with a three-year contract for circa €425k per annum, surely the only question to be asked is where to sign. O'Brien, however, described the leaving of Leinster as the hardest decision he's ever made. What's hard about saying 'yes' to someone who is making that sort of investment in you?

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"It's ideal, as you say, to go for it, but when you've poured your whole life into a place and started into an environment that wasn't here, and developed it with a group of other guys, and done whatever you could in your power to get it to where it is now, it's very hard to walk away from it, regardless of what money or what other club it is, or anything else," he says.

"And it's a club that as a young fella I always dreamed of playing with. There is more attached to it than just another club, or another season, or money. If I was offered a quarter of the money I'm getting going to London Irish to stay here, I would have stayed. That was the case. But, as you said, it's such an opportunity what I'm after getting, I'm going to grab it with both hands, obviously, and do whatever I can over there."

The notion of staying for a quarter of that sort of cash is bizarre, but we get the drift. Some decisions are best described as straightforward but painful. And there is a well of emotion in this case. Seán O'Brien feels he has joined a few of the dots in the picture that is Leinster today. If you've been around for 13 seasons in which an organisation has been transformed for the better you would feel a strong bond. When he arrived as a teenager, it was a different world.

"Yeah, 100 per cent, I had a massive chip on my shoulder coming in - no point in saying anything else. I probably disliked all the schools lads from the word off. The first under 18s team that came together was a schools/youths (mix) and when we met it was all: 'Where are you from'? 'Tullow' It'd be like: 'Where's that?' in a real patronising way - there was no genuine interest in where you're from. They were kind of in their own bubble at that stage. It changed though. It changed fairly quickly over a number of years. Once I was embedded in here, you gradually win over a few lads and you give a few lads a few thumps and it changed their mindset fairly quickly!"

O'Brien literally worked his passage. As he relates the story, you're reminded of the 1970s across the water when apprentice pros in English football clubs would spend a chunk of their days sweeping terraces, mopping out baths and cleaning boots.

"Just when I came into the first year academy, we'd very little money at home anyway. Actually, initially I was supposed to go into the sub-academy but it wouldn't have been viable for me to come up and down, we wouldn't have been able to do it at home. That would have been a couple of times a week.

"They actually took a bit of a chance on me, putting me straight into the academy. That gave me the few bob. I think we were getting €332 a month and getting into UCD as well, I got my accommodation and a small scholarship as well from them. I was able to live basically. When I came in then, I said to Dave McHugh, who was the manager, if there was any work going at all anywhere to let me know.

"So I used to fill the ice baths for the boys and clean all the changing rooms. I didn't really clean boots, now. I used to just help the bag man, help Johnny (O'Hagan) probably, it was usually just filling the ice baths and cleaning out the changing rooms and shower rooms after the lads were finished. It suited perfectly for me because I would be finished my academy training and I'd wait around and watch them train and wait until they were finished."

O'Brien carved out a career for himself as an enforcer who could play a bit of ball. At his best he was an enormous asset. Although six years separated the two events, you'd pick the World Cup pool game against Australia in Auckland in 2011, and the first Test for the Lions at the same venue in 2017, as high points. To be able to span that gap, despite all the injury issues, is testament to his quality. And how Leinster could do with some of that in Newcastle on Saturday. Saracens are the best Leinster have come across.

"Where do you start with them? Just the quality of the players they have. Their culture as well, and the way they go about their business week in, week out. They have big personalities in their team who are team players and that want the club to succeed and are so competitive, to do anything to achieve that. We know ourselves from last year how hard it is to go through a Champions Cup unbeaten and they're the only ones to do it (so far) this year. They play a really good brand. And they're hard stopped."

It would be a surprise if Saracens didn't go after Johnny Sexton in the way they put plenty of heat on Tyler Bleyendaal in the semi-final against Munster last month. But there will be a price on O'Brien's head as well. The first man in black to make a direct hit on the Tank will find himself showered with congratulations by his team-mates. For O'Brien, it will be like his own little intro to the Premiership. And Leinster will be hoping he makes a forceful farewell.

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