Sunday 17 December 2017

Sean O'Brien: ‘I can assure you there was no dwarf throwing our part’

Sean O'Brien
Sean O'Brien

On September 17, a tabloid newspaper printed a typically florid account of an international team's booze-filled bonding session in Queenstown's now infamous Altitude bar the previous week.

Apart from Stephen Ferris becoming an impromptu Page 3 topless model, the story dissipated almost as soon as it hit the news stands.

Why? Well, aside from the fact that it was the team's only night off in 50 days, or that they all returned home before curfew, or that nobody complained of their behaviour, it was really quite simple.

The same day the article was published, they beat the pants off Australia when it mattered. Had England managed to combine dwarf tossing with winning rugby, few would have quibbled with their behaviour.

Results dictate context, especially for punters on bar stools reading about professional athletes on bar stools. And, of course, it's about attitude. Who would you rather have fighting in the trenches beside you, Chris Ashton or Sean O'Brien?

"We got that result against Australia," said O'Brien, Ireland's player of the tournament, speaking yesterday at the Federation of Irish Sport's pre-budget submission. "Maybe if we hadn't got that result, someone might have asked why we were out two weeks before or something.

"We got the results we needed until the quarter-final when things didn't go our way. We enjoyed the time that we had out there."

English rugby's descent into post-anarchy civil war has, nevertheless, attempted to drag the Irish team into the abyss, specifically the anonymous, childish wailing as to why nobody alighted upon Declan Kidney's supposedly demon drinkers instead.

"We weren't really dragged into it, to be honest," O'Brien said. "As far as I read, they mentioned us being on a night out as well and some of the Irish media were with us.

"But I can assure you there was no dwarf throwing on our part, none of that craic. We were having a good time together, but no one got out of hand, no one did anything wrong."

England's antics have once more shone a light on drinking culture in sport except, like much of the cack-handed debate in this country about the subject, the focus skews too heavily towards the devilish drink rather than the diabolical drinkers.

O'Brien stoutly defends his and every professional athlete's right to tear off the shackles every now and then.

"Absolutely," he insisted. "It's what I say when I'm coaching the lads down in Tullow RFC. After a few weeks and a couple of nice wins I say we'll go out tonight and have a bit of craic together.

"You can certainly see the change the next week in training. Lads are happy, they're relaxed, they're focused again. People need that every now and again."

In the Twitter and video-phone age, however, O'Brien accepts that professional athletes are more susceptible than ever to the unvarnished viral prejudices that surround such nights out. After he was snapped on his summer holidays in the unlikely setting of a cruise ship off the island of Ibiza performing a tango with, of all people, hirsute English soccer player Jimmy Bullard, even O'Brien concedes to the perils of knowing what passes for public and private rest and relaxation.

"That wasn't before the World Cup, it was last summer on my holidays! Again, it was a bit of laugh, there was no harm done. It would be a different story if I fired him off the boat!

"Jumping around with him on the boat, there's no harm in that in my eyes. I suppose you have to know when you go out, you're not going out to do damage or misbehave. If it's going to be videoed, you just have to be careful a little bit. As long as you know yourself what's acceptable, that's the main thing."

One of the key side effects in the English game's dramatic, internecine fallout from their World Cup shambles is the lingering sense of mistrust that will inevitably follow as the English RFU begin to investigate the leaks from their own investigation.

"There would certainly be tension between the players if you knew who was saying the stuff," O'Brien said. "It is going to upset a few people, but if it is the truth then so be it and you face up to the facts, but it wouldn't be a nice place to be. I certainly wouldn't like to be involved in it."

O'Brien has enough worries to face on the field, particularly as he comes to terms with being the world game's most marked man, with the recent successes of Wales and Montpellier respectively forcing him to rethink his stereotypical image as a mere bulldozer.

"I wouldn't say there is any greater expectation on me apart from my own. I expect the same from myself and more. Other than that, I'm not really bothered about what anyone else thinks. I just want to play as many games as I can and as well as I can when I go out.

"Wales had their homework done and they did target us. They came at us in numbers, chopped us low and had the game plan in place to slow up our ruck and stuff. Having said that, we had chances to score tries in that game.

"I had one myself. On another day we probably would have scored.

"The ruck is a big thing for me in terms of improvement. It is changing all the time. There are different approaches and you have to be a lot smarter now around that area.

"The other thing is link play with the backs. That's a thing I'm working on. I am using my hands a little bit more and getting the ball away from that initial point of contact."

O'Brien, who revealed aspirations to captain his country in the future, backed Paul O'Connell to take the reins in the absence of injured Brian O'Driscoll. "Paulie is there and knows the system. He knows what it is all about. He is a great leader on the field, as is Rory Best -- so either or."

England's players would love to be wrestling with such concerns in this winter of their discontent.

Irish Independent

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