Monday 19 March 2018

Warren Gatland heaps praise on outstanding Sean O'Brien

“I thought Sean was outstanding - even from an experience and leadership point of view
“I thought Sean was outstanding - even from an experience and leadership point of view". Photo: Sportsfile

Ruadhri O'Connor

Warren Gatland has hailed Sean O'Brien's leadership credentials after the Ireland flanker hit the ground running on his Lions tour and put the captain's position as a Test starter in jeopardy.

Sam Warburton is due to return to the pitch against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Tuesday, but he has a real rival for his No 7 shirt in the Tullow native, who was one of several strong Irish performers as the men in red inflicted a first defeat in 2017 on the Crusaders in Christchurch.

Despite not having played since April 1, O'Brien was excellent alongside Peter O'Mahony and Taulupe Faletau in what was a well-balanced back-row.

Warburton hurt his ankle in the tour opener in Whangarei and sat out yesterday's 12-3 win. O'Brien started and played for 56 minutes before being replaced by CJ Stander.

"I thought Sean was outstanding - even from an experience and leadership point of view his voice in the changing room and direction to the players and chat . . . he probably lasted a bit longer than we thought he would," he said. "With Sam, a lot has been made, but Sean and Peter were always going to start. That was the plan.

"We will probably give him a run on Tuesday as he needs game time. It was a good performance and there was a lot of competition and players are well aware of that. We laid a marker down tonight and there is a big challenge for the team that takes the field on Tuesday.

"I thought some of Toby Faletau's footwork was outstanding. Despite what Zinzan Brooke said about him (he said he lacks a 'mongrel edge'), he posed a lot of problems and I thought Peter . . . he stole the lineout at the front and we put their lineout under some pressure. I think they lost the first three line-outs.

"It was a nice balance. I thought Sean carried excellently as well. We lost a bit of shape in the second half with the forwards and we got the impact when the boys came off the bench gave us that momentum.

"I thought [Maro] Itoje was outstanding coming off the bench, CJ was good and gave us some energy and the front-row did a really good job as well."

Gatland admitted that the criticism that followed his side's defeat to the Blues in Auckland on Wednesday had stung the squad and management.

"We've known about the quality of the players we've got and I just keep repeating myself that with more time together we'll be better," he said. "It's been a tough week. There's been a lot of criticism and people have written the tour off already after two games. That's been challenging - it's been challenging for all of us.

"The goal is the Test matches and to keep improving for that. I hope we didn't disappoint any people tonight with the result."

Gatland names his team for the Highlanders game this morning.

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