Monday 15 July 2019

"You're saying to a ref, 'How long do I have to survive this?'" - Sean O'Brien set for return to his dangerous game

Seán O’Brien with Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney at the announcement of Leinster Rugby’s new innovation partnership with BearingPoint management and technology consultancy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Seán O’Brien with Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney at the announcement of Leinster Rugby’s new innovation partnership with BearingPoint management and technology consultancy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

If it wasn't for bad luck, sometimes it feels as if Seán O'Brien would have no luck at all.

Shoulder? Shot. Hip? Hammered. Knee? Kiboshed. Hamstring? Hampered. Foot? Fu... Now there's no need for bad language here.

Seán O'Brien has travelled the same road once too often but a quitter he is not, even in the darkest days when entire calendar years and seasons were sliced from his fore-shortened career by a variety of surgeon's scalpels.

Perhaps there have been over 20 in all; you'd forgive him for losing count. Or faith. He was close to the edge, no more so when his hamstring horrors in 2016 threatened to put the car off the road for all time.

Since then, he has chugged along but the once-invincible Tank has morphed into an irritable Trabant.

With every comeback came the nagging suspicion that some day, somewhere, one of the loose bits of detritus swimming around his enfeebled frame might strike him down.

But now nothing has been left to chance.

There are no mysteries lying within; the miles on the clock aren't a bother, rather all the potholes that have battered him along the journey.

But only when he propels himself into furious battle can he ultimately road-test the latest, upgraded model.

"I'm back on the pitch hopefully next week or the week after," he says; a familiar line but one infused with renewed conviction.

"I'll then take it from there and see how the body is then. But everything is in the right place at the minute. Conditioning is good. Strength is good.

"I'm probably in better shape than I have been in my life.

"So I should be in the best place possible than I have ever been in my career when I come back. I know I've ticked every box. I haven't done anything that will impede me in any way coming back. I'll have done everything I could have done to be as fit as possible."

With his shoulder, you could see now he was playing a card trick for a long time; trouble is, when you play rugby, the house always wins.

He could slam and get slammed but if just one shot snapped him on a particular nerve, it was game over. And when it did, it was.

"The shoulder was probably gone from the Lions so… you get it done then or do you chance it like? I could have gotten away with it for another couple of years but I didn't.

"A certain hit might bring it on, know what I mean? Or a certain angle you get hit on. It might be just tricky.

"But it settled. After the Lions it settled. I'd no issue. I didn't even have a twinge in my shoulder.

"Then you come back after 60 seconds, you hit somebody, it clips the nerve and away with you."

The smashing impacts these guys receive seem like icebergs to the passive punter; visibly, we see the hit, the tackle, the slam. Beneath the surface, the damage is, often, incalculable, utterly unknowable.

The wonder, then, is not that Seán O'Brien has suffered so many injuries, rather, how in hell's name has he not sustained so many, many more?

A grim thought to grapple with; then maybe not in a week when another has succumbed to the game's seemingly irrepressible, brutal march, O'Brien's Lions captain Sam Warburton.

The Welshman's realisation that sometimes his job, his passion, was reduced to getting beaten up on a daily basis offered a sobering reflection of their chosen careers. If not a downright scary one.

"Yeah of course it is," he admits. "That's the thing people don't see.

"For me, I think people go, 'He's always injured'. They don't see what you're doing on the field to your body.

"That's just part of the game and part of your make-up, whatever way you play. That's what makes you the player you are, I suppose."

The player O'Brien is thrives on pummelling but poaching, too; crouched over the ball, open to forces from all angles flinging their hundredweight frames at every ounce of his prone frame.

With rucking consigned to history (for shame), the jackaller remains the chief target for the sport's open invitation to vicious, legalised assault.

"You're saying to a ref, 'How long do I have to survive this?' It's five or six seconds when you look back but in five or six seconds there could be five or six lads piling into you.

"It's one against three or four usually and they're smacking you at force, you're in a stable position. That's where people can get hurt."

But this is his world. And so he will keep taking the hits.

"That's the reality of it. Every person in the country that's playing rugby, there's something not right with them. There's no point saying any different."

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