Tuesday 20 February 2018

Relieved Sean O'Brien ready to play the game of his life against New Zealand

1 July 2017; British and Irish Lions players, from left, Elliot Daly, Sean O'Brien and Jack Nowell during the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
1 July 2017; British and Irish Lions players, from left, Elliot Daly, Sean O'Brien and Jack Nowell during the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Auckland

Sean O’Brien admits he feared the worst when he was cited after last Saturday’s second Test win over New Zealand, but believes the right decision was reached by the judicial panel.

The Tullow Tank has billed tomorrow’s series decider as the biggest game of his career but his availability was thrown into doubt when he was cited for his part in the incident that forced All Black wing Waisake Naholo off with a head injury.

O’Brien went through the process and was cleared of any wrong-doing by a disciplinary committee who ruled that he had not shown any intent to injure the Highlanders player who was ruled out of the rest of the game and tomorrow’s finale.

Having been banned for the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina two years ago, O’Brien has been in this situation before but this time around he was confident of being exonerated.

“Looking back at it, it was fairly innocuous and I would have been very surprised if I had received a ban for something like that. But I went through the process and got the result,” he said.

“It was fine. In my own head, the legalities of the whole thing and the ins and outs of it with the barristers and all that craic, that is what they are doing.. but for me I knew there was no intent involved in it, I knew I didn’t do it on purpose so I was happy in my own skin know that.

“But obviously going into a hearing you are a bit nervous because you don’t know what you are going to get and you don’t know how they are going to react to something like that. But at the end of the day, the result was the right thing.”

He said the incident and feeling in 2015 when he was banned for a punch on French lock Pascal Pape was a very different experience.

“Ha! Sitting for nine hours in a room at the World Cup, it was pretty intense all right but it was a different scenario this time around. World Cup, I knew I'd done wrong, I admitted to that so I had to take my medicine,” he said.

“This time around it was a different story.”

He has played in huge games for Leinster, Ireland and the Lions but O’Brien is giving tomorrow morning’s Test series decider against New Zealand top billing.

Although the historic nature of the clash has not been addressed within the squad, the Tullow native is fully aware of the significance of the opportunity ahead of him and his team-mates.

One of the players of the series so far, O’Brien has found fitness and form at just the right time and has earned rave reviews from team-mates, coaches and opponents over the course of the tour.

He has emerged as a senior leader in the squad, lending his voice behind the scenes and on the field were the ref-mics pick his loud organisational chat up on a regular basis.

And he is fully aware of the challenge that’s coming.

 “This is the biggest game I've ever been involved in, I think this weekend. It's hugely exciting,” he said.

“Yeah, it's definitely bigger (than the decider against Australia four years ago) I think.

“Sydney was special, any time you win a series is special but to come here and win one is the ultimate, especially with the schedule we've had and the opposition we're facing, how good they are.

“That's what it's all about.

“This group of players have stuck together very well over the past six weeks and the lads that aren’t involved this weekend, they have played a major role in getting us ready today and preparing the team as best we can.

“It is about the whole lot of us and that is I suppose a factor in the back of your head that we will be trying to play for one another.”

Although he was left out of the Ireland squad for the win over New Zealand having just returned from injury, O’Brien returned for the re-match in Dublin when a ferocious All Black performance saw the world champions gain revenge.

Rory Best has addressed the Lions about that experience and what lessons he and Ireland took from the levels of intensity they managed that day.

“We all know what's coming on Saturday,” O’Brien said.

“They'll be a bit hurt after last weekend but it's something you embrace and you go again, isn't it?

“So that's what we're here to do, we're here for a challenge and we're going to get it this weekend and it's about how we react to it and hopefully we react a lot better to some of the stuff that we put ourselves under in terms of last weekend and keep our heads and play some nice rugby. 

“They’ll be coming to try and hurt us, won’t they?

“And to physically impose themselves on us this week, and that’s how they went about it the first week. We fronted up pretty well last week.

“I’ll say it again, I think there’s a lot of improvement in us, and we can go another notch in terms of those stakes as well. That’s what we’ll be saying all week.

“When you look back at the game at the weekend there's so much more in us.

“He (Beauden Barrett) kicks another few goals, we're in trouble. You have to be honest as well with how the game panned out, our discipline and a few bits and pieces like that.

“We have to be better this week and that's a challenge to the group, but one we're looking forward to.

“We're at the right stage now to click and go forward.”

Physically, O’Brien is at the peak of his powers having put an injury hit season behind him.

His last game for Leinster came on April 1 and he used his period on the sidelines to get himself in the best physical shape possible for the tour.

It has shown at key moments, be it hunting down Richie Mo’unga in the Crusaders game or running a brilliant chasing line to get on the end of the first Lions try in the first Test.

“A massive amount of work has gone into it and a couple of the six weeks I had before the tour probably stood to me,” he said.

I did an awful amount of work and conditioning and fitness and strengthening and everything in that time.

“I feel very good. I feel very fast and strong so, can't complain.”

“I did every single thing I could possibly do, I think, in those six weeks. I looked after myself incredibly well, probably the best I've ever looked after myself.”

His leadership has been a feature of the tour, he has been spoken about as a vocal presence behind the scenes and on the field.

“It’s probably a natural thing for me at this stage,” he said.

“Once I’m fit, I’m like that. Again, it’s just a natural thing. I enjoy that side of things as well. I enjoy keeping lads going. I enjoy giving lads good messages and making sure people are clear as well.”

Although the Lions are not overly focusing on the historic nature of the opportunity in front of them, O’Brien is fully aware of the legacy of 1971 even if he won’t be using it as a direct motivational trigger.

“We'll think about that when we're 50 or 60-years-of-age sitting having a pint somewhere. They'll be nice things at that stage of your life, but not right now; we just want to go out and perform, win and see where that leaves us,” he said.

“I'd be lying if I said I don't look back on the Lions' history and see legends of the game who are still in the spotlight because of what they've done years ago.

“That's part and parcel of it. But as a player, when you're involved in it right now, I don't think you look at that stuff often.

“You're aware of what's gone on before you and what they've done.

“That's down the line, you know? We're here to play rugby and to do what we can for each other.”

They are one game away from joining the pantheon and O’Brien is determined not to let the opportunity slip.

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