Sunday 13 October 2019

'I can play anywhere across the back-row' -- O'Brien

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

SEAN O'BRIEN bristles, turns and glares. He has just been asked if the presence of Sam Warburton as Lions captain hinders his chances of claiming the No 6 or 7 jersey in Australia next month. "Or 8," he retorts.

Versatility is a key weapon for the Tullow man as he gears up for the battle of his life. Getting into the Lions squad was one thing, securing a Test spot is a whole other ball game.

O'Brien wants Warren Gatland to know that he'll play anywhere to make a Lions Test team, even if it means forcing the tour skipper out of the side.

His modus operandi will be a fierce attitude to training – the New Zealander might need to step in to stop the seven international-class back-rows in his squad doing themselves damage.

With Warburton almost guaranteed his Test spot, it will take some effort to get into one of those three positions. It is not a straight shootout for the No 7 position either – Ospreys' Justin Tipuric is also in the mix after taking the jersey from Warburton during the Six Nations and forcing him on to the blindside.

Dan Lydiate and Tom Croft will be his rivals for the blindside position, with Croft the starter in that position four years ago and the Welshman a Gatland favourite.

Jamie Heaslip's presence at No 8 for Leinster and Ireland has limited his opportunities in the position he played at underage and for UCD, but he is quick to remind his audience that he has played there for Ireland and would like a crack at it in a red jersey – even if it means dislodging clubmate Heaslip and another Welsh option, Toby Faletau.

"Absolutely. I'm going to back myself against whoever is out there and that's always been the way I've been taught," he said. "I'm not going to say, 'oh I can't play 8 because the two lads are there', so obviously there are options there all over the place. I played 8 against Italy a couple of years back for a while, so Declan Kidney knew I could play 8 as well.

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"Obviously, with Jamie being so consistent, he's very hard to move and I suppose our partnership as well, with me being in the same back-row as him, has worked pretty well. I suppose that was looked at by the previous Irish coach but I can leave myself open to play in any position."

The prospect of being the perfect impact substitute is not one that appeals to O'Brien. His ability to cover all three back-row positions will help, while the prospect of him running hard at tired Australians has surely crossed the coaching staff's minds. However, it is not a role that O'Brien is considering for himself, yet.

"It wouldn't be my view to be an impact player, no, it would be my view to start and that's what I'll be hoping for," he said. "I can play all three and that's the way I'm going to stay. I'm not saying I can play 7 out there, I have to go for 6 or 8 because Sam is captain obviously."

A product of the club system, he has defied the odds to get this far in his career, so it is not surprising that he is looking to continue that run. A first-time tourist, he'll have plenty of advice from familiar voices.

"I suppose you can feed off lads like Drico, Paulie, lads who have been there a couple of times, even Rob," he explained. "For myself, it is about keeping doing what I'm doing, ensuring I'm right and I'll learn from being out there. When you look back on the last Lions tour, that's where most of the lads picked up knocks, the first couple of weeks – trying to cement their places and working hard.


"That will be no different this year. Lads will want to be on the Test side and will want to do as well as they possibly can to be there. I think it is no different to other set-ups, big weeks in the Irish camp there is a serious edge around the place. There is a bit of cut in everything."

There is plenty of rugby to play between now and then, starting with tomorrow's meeting with the Ospreys in which Leinster will be looking to secure a home Pro12 semi-final.

With the upheaval of Joe Schmidt's Ireland appointment, and the Lions selection hanging over the players, there have been plenty of distractions as the season nears its end.

"There's been a bit of distraction of late, everything going on," the Leinster man admitted. "We knew as players that this would happen, so we had to keep the head down, keep the focus over the next couple of weeks.

"It's a massive part of the year. Obviously we want to win trophies and they are going to be won and lost over these next couple of weeks, so it's very important that we focus on what is ahead of us and that starts on Friday."

One piece of unresolved business is the future of Brian O'Driscoll and, while the players didn't join in the chants of 'One more year' during Saturday's win over Biarritz, O'Brien reckons there's life in the former Lions captain yet.

"We didn't start chanting at him anyway," he said with a smile. "We'd love to see Brian stay on for another year or two years if he could. He' s an unbelievable leader and someone who has presence around the place. He's great, especially for younger lads, but also for experienced lads. He's always someone you can turn to.

"He's probably in the best nick he's ever been in, to be honest. Over the last three seasons he's minded himself better than anyone else on the squad."

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