Saturday 17 August 2019

'There were mistakes we made that we will look to not repeat'

Big Interview: Conor O'Brien

Conor O’Brien hard at work in training. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor O’Brien hard at work in training. Photo: Sportsfile
Getting to grips with Berton Klaasen of Southern Kings. Photo: Sportsfile

Conor O'Brien

As Conor O'Brien gets ready to step into the arena tomorrow evening, he like everyone else knows just what's at stake. But for once, just maybe, he could be forgiven for having an eye to the future.

Yes, all players have a next-game focus and that focus is squarely on Benetton Rugby this week, but for the first time this season, they could be forgiven for allowing a slight look over the shoulder and a quick glance down the road.

They know that the same 'next game focus' will eventually be a semi-final game in either the Guinness PRO14 or the Heineken Champions Cup.And the chances to press a claim for a jersey in that match-day 23 may only come once.

And that once may be tomorrow at 7.45pm in the RDS. It is suddenly about so much more than the four points on offer and a good performance against an in-form Benetton Rugby side.

"One of the things that the coaches are really big on is rewarding form. You are picked on form, not on your name, so the full squad know that. We have all bought into that ethos.

"You know that if you train well, if you play well, if you are consistent in those areas Leo and the coaches will reward you. Sometimes of course you won't get the call because they go with another fella and you have to respect that too but the environment is very much player- and performance-driven.

"Perform well and you'll get the rewards. Simple. And yeah we know that we have that next opportunity now on Saturday against Benetton and hopefully we can take that shot and make those decisions harder for the coaches over the coming weeks."

O'Brien, 23, has certainly been pressing his claims this season and they have listened.

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A string of impressive performances in particular over the Christmas interpros, when he was involved in all three games, led to his registration in the European squads for Rounds 5 and 6.

A start, 64 minutes and a try against Connacht, off the bench against Munster in a raucous Thomond Park a week later and then another start, a full 80 minutes and a memorable try against Ulster in the RDS.

Rocking

And then his reward. Registered for Europe and a debut off the bench in the must-win penultimate round game against Toulouse. He's come a long way from his days rocking up to Mullingar RFC of a morning as a young lad and hoping for a game.

"Felipe (Contepomi) has been great for me. He has given me huge amount of confidence in my game. He was obviously a brilliant player himself and he is very direct with his feedback, constructive criticism but I think he has really helped me improve so much as a player and then when I get the chance, it's about taking that shot.

"Those interpros were great. The atmosphere, the intensity, like nothing else." With 16 caps to his name and six tries already this season, O'Brien is taking the Leinster coaches' instructions but he hasn't lost sight of those that helped him get to train under the likes of Leinster's finest Argentinian import.

"I was only back in Mullingar there a few weeks ago helping the U-9s girls' team out and it brought me back to when I was that kid. Coming along to training of a morning and loving it. It was brilliant. Over 200 kids on the new astroturf pitches they have there. It looks brilliant to see those numbers and the sport being so popular.

"I know for me I owe a huge amount to people like Joe Duggan, Tony Doolin and Brendan Leahy. Really good men that helped me and my rugby. It's hard to believe that those young kids in Mullingar are maybe looking at me now and thinking there is a player that came from this club, from this area and is now playing for Leinster.

"We all need those people growing up to aspire to and hopefully I can help that next generation of players in Mullingar. I owe a lot to the club and to the people there."

After school, it was people like Derek Maybury, Dan van Zyl and Wayne Mitchell that nurtured him on his Youth Rugby journey. And now it's Messrs. Cullen, Lancaster and Contepomi barking the orders and willing him on. But before he can get too lost in his rugby, he has his UCD exams to bring him down to earth.

"I have exams in two weeks so it's not exactly ideal timing in terms of the schedule we have with Leinster but it is a key part of the Academy system. The link between rugby and education. At certain stages rugby takes a back seat and you have to miss training or a gym session because of exams or whatever and then at other times you need that flexibility from UCD. Thankfully, it is there and it's a massive help."

Preparing for economics exams and Benetton Rugby. There are worse ways of spending your week.

"I wasn't involved in the loss against them last season but looking back there were mistakes that we made that we will look not to repeat. It was a 17-15 loss but it was also the loss of our unbeaten home record. It was massively disappointing but look you can't dwell on the negatives either.

Positives

"You can only allow a certain amount of that negativity into your thoughts because after that you have to bring it back around to the positives and what has got us to where we are now. So you have to remind yourself.

"We are in the knockout stages of two competitions but hard work and doing the basics really well got us there so we have to make sure that come Saturday we apply ourselves in exactly the same way. The personnel will be different from last week but we all take massive pride in pulling on that jersey and we all know what's at stake at this time of the year.

"It's a performance to help us build towards something bigger and we all want to be in that conversation in the PRO14 and in Europe. It's up to us on Saturday to ensure that that happens."

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