Sean O'Brien: 'There's six or seven lads who just give up, give in'
Sean O'Brien looking to make up for lost time after summer of rehab and rollercoaster return to GAA roots with Carlow and Wexford as he backs Leinster and Ireland to kick on this season
The flip side of being congenitally hard is that a man can get into the habit of asking too much of his body.
So these days are bittersweet for Sean O'Brien, the sheer tingle of rude health now reminding him of what was lost to him last year.
He has just completed his first full, unimpeded pre-season in three summers, leaving him primed for what he hopes will be a redemptive career chapter.
There is a candour to O'Brien that eschews scenic-route expression and, on the field, that takes a toll. In recent times, he has had to rehabilitate a damaged thumb, knee, ankle, hip and, most recently, shoulder that precluded him from involvement in this year's Six Nations. It also meant he missed the business end of Leinster's season.
To fill the void, he juggled rehab with some informal involvement in the back-room operations of Carlow footballers and Wexford hurlers. The first came about through volunteering to help his native county, the second through a friendship with Model County hurlers Lee Chin and Podge Doran.
Both experiences were educational, jarring at times and - in the case of Wexford's defeat of All-Ireland champions Clare - briefly tumultuous. Yet he is loath to over-egg his influence in either dressing room. In any case, that influence inevitably dwindled as the imperatives of his rehab grew more pressing.
Today he feels a small galaxy removed from the invalid confined to a hospital bed in Santry for two weeks last January, having contracted an infection shortly after undergoing successful shoulder surgery in Manchester.
O'Brien had the operation on December 27, but fell ill within days.
"I started to get the sweats when I got home," he remembers now. "I was going hot and cold at night time. I'd have a shower and be freezing cold when I got out. The next minute I'd boil up all of a sudden.
"It was like having the flu, but ten times worse. I had no real energy. There was a wedding down the country around New Year that I had to go to. I was already on antibiotics at that stage and, on the way back up in the car, I started to feel sick. I rang the doc. 'Go straight to Santry!' he said.
"By the time I got to Santry, I didn't know what was going on. I was in bits."
He spent an entire week connected to an IV drip, being woken through the night to take on more antibiotics.
"It wasn't the nicest thing," he recalls. "I lost a good bit of weight, but they got it sorted and thankfully the shoulder is perfect. I knew the functional part of the shoulder had been moving pretty well even a week after the operation. Even when I had the infection, I was still moving it, trying to keep it loose. So once it cleared, I knew I was going to be flying again."
Still, there could be no short-cuts to rehab and O'Brien was an envious spectator as Joe Schmidt's Ireland stormed to Six Nations glory.
It was an achievement that didn't entirely surprise him, given the mentality the group had taken from the November Series.
"I had mixed emotions probably through the whole thing," he reflects. "I was obviously delighted for the lads, but disappointed on a personal level.
"Because I knew it was going to be an exciting time for us. I knew we'd got over a few barriers in the previous few months, bits and pieces, and that we had the right man in charge of us.
"I suppose we had a good look at ourselves after the November Tests - even the realisation that on our day, when we play well, we can beat anybody and compete with anybody. I think that series was a big eye-opener to a lot of the lads.
"It was time to kick things on and I think the lads did that in the Six Nations."
The cruel, last-second New Zealand defeat left a complex psychological legacy.
O'Brien confirms: "When you look back on the video, you know it was disgraceful the way the game ended for us. Of course it hurt. But it was in our control as well and that's probably the sickening thing, the thing that makes you angry when you look back on things like that.
"But I think, hopefully, we won't be letting that happen again. Maybe it wasn't even anger we felt afterwards, it was just knowing that, if we play the way we can play, we can win against anyone. And the majority of times we will, when we do what we are told!"
Through those autumn tests and into early January, O'Brien's own future was the subject of much conjecture, with French giants Toulon leading a posse of Top 14 clubs keen to secure the signature of one of the most explosive back-rows in world rugby.
O'Brien admits he did not welcome the professional uncertainty, particularly at a time he was just beginning the process of lengthy rehab.
"There were lots of chats had with them," he says of the reigning European champions. "And I suppose I was thinking strong about it at one stage. I was trying to do the right thing for me.
"But you don't really want it on your mind either. It had been going on since the previous Christmas and it's something the players don't want to be going through for months on end. Still, when clubs come knocking and your time is up, you have to think about what's good for you."
Eventually, he signed a new two-year deal with Leinster and the relief felt on all sides was instantaneous.
"We have built something so strong in Leinster, that was probably the biggest thing for me," he says now.
"You know playing through the academy, always being in Leinster, what we have achieved, the players we have, the set-up, the coaching staff, everything.
"As a whole it works in my head and that's the most important thing. I still believe Leinster is the place to win trophies at the minute and it's where I want to be.
"I saw a report in the paper recently that Toulon are looking for the 'Fantastic Four' now - Carter, McCaw, Read and maybe the All Blacks full-back (Israel Dagg). They're trying to buy up everyone around them nearly, but there's no guarantee that that will work.
"I still think that when Leinster get it right, we're as good as anyone. Maybe there was a lack of a fear factor for us at times last year and that came against us, particularly when we went to Toulon.
"But, when you look at most of Toulon's games last year, they just tried to out-muscle teams, bully teams. They mightn't play the best brand of rugby, but it's effective what they do. It's a man-upathon. 'I'm bigger than you, I'm going to beat you up' kind of thing. But there's ways of out-smarting that as well and that's the challenge to us to get back to the top."
During his summer holidays, O'Brien took a five-day break in Las Vegas with a few friends from Tullow. It was his second time to visit the neon jungle and he admits to enjoying its unique sense of escapism.
"It's a big playground for adults," he smiles. "The lads from home hadn't been there before so it was something different for them. We had a great time. We went to a few pool parties and went to Guns N' Roses one night in The Hard Rock Hotel. That was probably the best part.
"Other than that, just a few beers every day, ate lots of food and watched the madness happen around us!"
Back home, his involvement with Carlow footballers offered a reminder of the glaring inequities of a county man's life within the GAA. And O'Brien is unapologetically outspoken about the cold realities that now need to be faced.
"I was half disappointed with the involvement I had overall," he says. "I'd gone in and given a hand-out with different things but gradually, as I got back fitter, I had less and less time. I obviously had to prioritise my own stuff.
"I did enjoy it and I think the group of players bought into changing the culture down there in Carlow, changing how they go about their business. Even if every person changed 1pc and did something a little bit better for the year... that's what I was saying to them. It'll never ever change if a group doesn't come together. Keep doing the same thing, you'll keep getting the same results.
"It's a good group of young lads there at the minute, but Carlow football hasn't been very strong and you know it has to stop somewhere. There is a circle and hopefully... I don't really want to be having a go at the GAA but they have to go and look at the smaller counties and develop them a little, try to get the balancing act right between the big boys and the small boys.
"But they're not going to do that if they don't have commitment from the players and if the county board aren't backing them."
He believes Anthony Rainbow did the best job possible within the constraints imposed but, with the Kildare man now departed, Carlow's future development is anything but guaranteed. You put it to him that they maybe find themselves caught in a vicious circle now, in which repeated hammerings invite players into the natural trap of giving less.
O'Brien's response is as jolting as artillery-fire.
"Yeah it is a trap and I'd make no bones about saying that there's six or seven lads in the county who were top footballers who've done exactly that over the past couple of years," he says bluntly.
"They just give up and they give in. They don't want to change it. They don't want to change the way it is down there. That's their own thing, they're being selfish basically.
"And you can tell those lads straight away. If you put them in a bunch of 40 people, I could pick out the lads who wouldn't stick with it if it got hard or tough or if things weren't going so well. They just walk away from it. That's their attitude and their culture down there. They're used to getting away with it.
"In fairness to Anthony Rainbow and his team this year, if someone wasn't committed, they just said: 'Right, that's it, we'll just get someone else in...' If someone wanted to walk away, walk away.
"Whereas in previous years, maybe somebody went off the panel of their own accord and asked to come back in then when things were looking up. One of the things with me is the group of players must be all singing off the same hymn sheet. If there's one lad not pulling his weight, he's ineffective to the rest. He's not helping. It contaminates the group and lads get p***ed off then when someone's after missing two months of training and comes back in.
"There's lots of things like that to be worked on down there, but it's going to be a slow process. I think they're going to have to start from the ground up again. But they won't go anywhere bar players and management wanting to change it themselves."
O'Brien is keen to stress that his GAA involvement this summer, in both Carlow and Wexford, was simply an informal process of opening a line into his own experiences for those who cared to listen.
He was in Wexford Park the giddy night Liam Dunne's men evicted Clare from the All-Ireland Championship and found himself, instantly, preaching caution. That has almost become his default setting on the good days. To remember how fleetingly euphoria can pass.
"I walked into the dressing room afterwards and remember thinking: 'Jesus, this could get out of hand very easily...' I went back to my way of thinking probably straight away. You'd just be worried the young lads might lose the plot... you know it's very... we've all seen it - sometimes you get bitten on the bum when you take your eye off the ball. That was something I just said to Liam: 'Make sure now everyone re-focuses and gets ready for the next game.' But I didn't really have to. Liam Dunne is a good man who knows exactly what he wants."
O'Brien was in Thurles with Leinster prop (and Wexford man), Tadhg Furlong the day a "bigger, stronger" Limerick then beat them in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
O'Brien's GAA connections endlessly tug at his attention and, around the time Ireland were touring in Argentina this summer, he lined out for Fighting Cocks in a charity Gaelic football game against Fenagh.
It wasn't, maybe, the kind of exercise his employers would have encouraged and he admits that, in hindsight, it mightn't have been wise. "It was great craic," he says "but there wouldn't be much craic for me if I went out and hurt myself. I'm aware of that obviously now.
"Looking back on it, I probably should have asked permission. I had a few phone calls coming my way after: "I hope you didn't play that game...' Look, I wasn't ever going to put myself on the line, but I suppose they're the things off the field that I kind of have to tighten up on a little bit, do a little bit less maybe for people."
The arrival of the new rugby season excites him now. He believes that Ireland under Schmidt can build on last year's glory and that, despite the loss of Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen from their playing staff, that Leinster can re-establish themselves at the forefront of the European game.
"Obviously the new competition is coming with Leinster, it's going to be interesting, something different," he says. "But we had a meeting a few weeks back and I was looking around the room thinking: 'Jesus, we have some squad this year!' And that was with a few lads still to come into it.
"Even some of the young lads in the academy are ready to rock I think. So it's an exciting year ahead and I'm really looking forward to getting stuck into it. Everything we go into we'll want to win, that's the way we've been with Leinster for the last few years.
"And I think there's going to be a big push on for us to really perform now and bring ourselves to a better place."
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