'James Ryan could be better than Paul O'Connell' - Sean O'Brien
The career of Seán O’Brien, starting in 2008, has straddled the process of learning how to win and continue winning. Now, Leinster are beginning to look like they did from 2009 through to 2012.
There is a core group in place, the thirty-somethings you might call them, who have been there and done all that.
Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Devin Toner and O’Brien learned how to lead from the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen.
They will pass the baton of leadership down the line when the time is right.
The production line from the Leinster Academy is better than ever. Joey Carbery, Ross Byrne, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Porter, the list really does go on and on and on.
However, there is a big difference between a good player and a great player and another hamstring-stretching step up to being a great leader.
Munster’s Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy and Anthony Foley recognised it early on in Paul O’Connell.
Right now, this is the case at Leinster for one man in particular as far as O’Brien is concerned.
“You look at the likes of James Ryan,” said the Tullow man. “He is not in that role yet, but he is someone who could potentially get into that role very quickly.”
The comparisons to O’Connell are premature and unfair for the inspirational type of leader the Limerick man grew into as a fusion of the physical and the mental on the field and the voice off it.
“Everyone is comparing him to Paulie, but physically he is a young man who is going to get bigger and he is a very good rugby player.
“He could be better than Paulie,” said O’Brien.
Of course, Toner might well look down on these comments with a wry smile.
The Moynalvey man has been looking better than ever in his expanding leadership role this season.
The main challenge for Ryan is just to get on the field and put a string of games together.
At this moment, the 21-year-old is working his way back from injury, an ankle sprain. He isn’t the only one.
While O’Brien has been nursing a muscle problem in his hip – he had both labrums done in 2012 – Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy have been busy reeling off Man of the Match performances.
“Even the likes of Josh and Dan who are two quieter guys on the field but they can develop that as they get older,” he said.
“Them, for me, are a few lads that can take the whole thing forward when a few of us down the line aren’t there.”
The Ireland flanker is confident his hip will heal fully by the time Glasgow roll into Dublin on Sunday week.
“I just probably had it going into the last Exeter game, just struggling with it that week, between jogging and three-quarter pace I was just getting a bit caught,” he said.
“The quicker I move the better I feel but it’s been good the last two weeks.”
O’Brien has made a career out of playing through the pain barrier. That is what he did against Exeter in The Aviva Stadium.
“How do I view that? It was probably the clientele we were coming up against was one thing, and the importance of the game,” he said.
“If I didn’t think I would have added to the game I would have pulled it myself.
“It was one of those things where I had to get through it.”
It is a measure of his standing within the group that for all of Leinster’s resources in the back row, O’Brien was deemed necessary to requirements.
Sometimes, there is nothing like an old head on relatively old shoulders.
Leinster do look primed for a big move in Europe as they hunt down a fourth star for the jersey.
“It’s a different time and a different squad and probably a bit of a different culture but it is certainly an exciting place to be right now,” said O’Brien.
“What’s different is you have lost a load of lads that created that culture.
“You bring a load of younger lads in and how do they know what that culture is? They haven’t experienced it, developed it.
“The culture we have now is one they have been involved in, added to and evolved. They have grown up with it the last year or two.
“It is theirs. It is not Brad Thorn’s or Nathan Hines’ or Leo’s (Cullen) or any of those lads.
“That was the culture we were involved in then and it has to change as new players come in or they won’t know what it is about.”
The original block of seven matches has produced four wins with three left on the calendar.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good place and the next few weeks will probably define our whole season,” O’Brien added.
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