Henshaw’s absence will leave it to Mr O’Brien to play a serious role
Whatever happens between now and May, Conor O’Brien won’t find it difficult to forget his European debut against Toulouse.
Probably because there was nothing much to remember in the first place.
“I fell off Cheslin Kolbe. That’s about it really,” smiles the Westmeath man.
In fact, he reckons he made just as much of an impression in an earlier, less official, European bow; as a mascot a decade earlier.
“It was U-11s or U-12s for Mullingar and I played at half-time in that exact fixture. I got three or four minutes both days. I suppose it is progress. In a way.”
Three minutes might be the summation of his debut season in the Champions Cup; he didn’t feature in Wasps last Sunday and should Leinster’s squad retain rude health, that scenario is unlikely to change much.
But then again, when he started the season he wasn’t even in the club’s 41-man European squad.
The 22-year-old has stealthily eaten up the ground once established by others to firmly frank his status as a viable option in midfield.
Since making his debut in October, the final-year academy player has impressed in all seven PRO14 outings; he will make his eighth against the Scarlets in the RDS this Friday.
And he did enough in a festive hat-trick of appearances to ensure that his name was added to the list of those chosen to lead Leinster’s Champions Cup title defence.
Such are the numbers involved though, momentum is difficult, particularly when there is the formidable figure of a Lion, Robbie Henshaw, also blocking your path.
However, that particular cat is away and this will allow O’Brien to play.
“Of course it’s difficult to get momentum,” he suggests.
“I’d say most players would have an issue with that professionally when it’s a competitive environment, especially for a young lad like myself just coming on to the scene this year.
“You get a run of a couple of games and you are trying to take every opportunity that you get. There is a bit of pressure on you but I love it.
“It’s putting good pressure on you that you have to perform but at the same time the coaches will try and create the environment to push you as much as they can.
“But Felipe Contepomi would still say ‘you will make mistakes, just forget about them and learn from them.’
“As long as the decision or the reason why you did it was right, the execution will get better with time. That’s definitely something we’re working on recently.”
And even though he played all but three minutes of the last fortnight, in Leinster’s scheme of things, he was playing – for the opposition; in training, seeking to mimic their every move. At the very least, his involvement lessened the disappointment; the competitive edge was still burning.
“You have to be realistic when you are going in here. Robbie Henshaw is a Lion and so you can’t be disappointed when he comes back in and pushes you out of the team.
“I learn a lot from Robbie in training and stuff and regardless of whether you are playing or not you try and help prepare the 23 as best you can, running opposition against them.
“Say they are running back-line moves against us, we are trying to tell them ‘that worked, that didn’t,’ because they are going to be putting enormous pressure on us to defend and attack against them.
“Everyone is preparing in their own way. The 23 and especially the starting 15 is the most important thing but everyone has to be switched on.
“I was 24th man down in Munster and I was called upon five minutes before kick-off; you have to be switched on.”
Henshaw remains at once a rival and an inspiration.
“He’s a really big role model for me without sounding too cringey. We are both footballers from Westmeath playing rugby. We are a similar enough build and our attributes are similar, strengths and stuff, so he’s the perfect person to have there to look at in training.
“When he is running around you in training you learn fairly quickly to stop him or try your best to stop him. It’s unbelievable to have him there and he’s a lovely lad as well.
“I didn’t actually know him growing up, obviously he’s Athlone and I’m Mullingar so there’s a bit of rivalry there already. He’s kicked on since, he was so young and playing with Connacht, Leinster and Ireland at such a high level.
“I mean he’s an unbelievable talent. I kind of look up to that. That’s what I’m striving for. He was the man in my way when we first came into the academy. I suppose it’s a good conversation to have that you’re talking about me trying to overtake Robbie.
“Trying to get up to that level, I wouldn’t have considered until you’d asked me these type of questions about being picked for Champions Cup. I was playing for Clontarf last year. But every little bit of progress is good if I can keep taking the opportunities when they come, maybe I can give Leo some things to think about.”