Monday 23 April 2018

'If we don't want to work, we shouldn't be here. It's about being successful'

Sean O’Brien is confident Ireland have worked out how to deal with the Welsh chop-tacklers
Sean O’Brien is confident Ireland have worked out how to deal with the Welsh chop-tacklers
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A YEAR ago, Sean O'Brien spent this week in Cheltenham soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the rough and tumble of the races like everyone else in the Cotswolds.

Still, he was probably the only person there who would really have preferred to be elsewhere. His mind must have drifted to Maynooth, where his colleagues were preparing for a Six Nations assault on Italy without him.

This year, he has tuned into the racing, but his attention has been elsewhere. Such is his focus on Ireland's trip to Cardiff, he didn't even have a bet.

The horses will be there long after he retires. Now, he is making up for lost time and a year out of the international picture just when he should have been in his prime.

It's been a good week for Carlow with Willie Mullins' successes, while O'Brien knows Ruby Walsh and Davy Russell, but it won't be in any way complete for the flanker unless he pulls off his own victory.

"I haven't thought about horses or anything really over the last few weeks," he explains. "I was down home once or twice but I haven't been doing any work really, just been sauntering around - this is the priority at the minute, all that's on my mind."

Life in Joe Schmidt's Ireland set-up is all-consuming and O'Brien is one of those players who has been listening to the New Zealander's voice for five seasons now since the coach arrived at Leinster in the summer of 2010.

Freshness, one imagines, is an issue - especially given the relentless drive for high standards the Kiwi demands of his players. The trade-off is the reward of silverware, and Schmidt has delivered on that front every year since arriving from France.

Driven

"I don't think it's a case of him changing things, it's a case of the players being driven," O'Brien says.

"If it's something we don't want to do, we shouldn't be there. It's about being successful, it's about playing good rugby and it's about being one team. That all has to come from the players, we have to drive that."

O'Brien's enforced separation from the national team began after the heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand and in the intervening period he watched from the sidelines as the players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht got to know Schmidt's way, claimed a Championship and embarked on the unbeaten run that will become a record with victory today in Cardiff.

"There obviously has been a step up because the team over the last year and a half have progressed and developed a lot," he says of a set-up he rejoined at the start of this campaign.

"We've a bigger squad now, more competition for places. We've a super bench, we've a super 30-35 players to pick from and that's been the biggest difference over the last year and a half - players have gotten better under this coaching regime.

"That's probably the bigger picture for Irish rugby. Everyone has improved.

"You come back into this environment and I found this at the start, little small things which you mightn't have been paying attention to are there and you're reminded of them straight away. It sharpens you up a lot.

"Other than that it's the same stuff and I suppose I've been used to that for a few years under Joe and you soon settle back into that routine, the way he operates and the standards he wants.

"You look at Paulie (O'Connell), Johnny (Sexton), all of the senior players driving everything around as well; so it's a knock-on effect."

O'Brien's return has been a frustrating one. Yet to play for Leinster after undergoing a second shoulder operation in September, the Tullow native was thrown into the fray for the Wolfhounds and, after coming through 50 minutes, was handed a start against Italy eight days later.

He felt his hamstring tighten in the warm-up and pulled out, but was fit enough for almost 80 minutes against France in round two.

Then, just as he was feeling like momentum was beginning to go his way, his head collided with England colossus Billy Vunipola's knee after he had charged at George Ford and the lights went out.

"It has been frustrating, ideally I'd like to have had a lot more minutes," he admits.

"I've been out for so long, you come back in at this level and it's just a lot different than when I went back into Pro12 rugby or even a European Cup game, I just haven't got a break as such yet.

"On the other hand, I've been happy to be back involved, I'm there to be selected. It was a long haul for me to come back, so I'm not going to complain too much, but it has been a kind of up-and-down few weeks for me.

"Every week that's gone by I've felt that even my body shape has changed as well, you see yourself get a bit leaner as you get through the weeks.

"That happens a lot quicker with more minutes, actual games rather than training, but I do feel fitter now than I've felt in a long time and that's a very pleasing aspect considering I haven't played as much as I'd liked.

"I probably am a bit bigger, I'm probably a kilo or two heavier muscle-wise and that's only a good thing as long as you're not too heavy for your position."

Despite missing out on his first piece of silverware with Ireland last year, O'Brien insists he is not making up for lost time this time around.

He repeats the squad's one-game-at-a-time mantra, albeit in a more evocative way than most.

"We've learnt in the past, if you look past games you get bitten in the arse," he says. "If you're not focused on what's ahead of you, your next step, then you're going to go back a step or two. That's all we're looking at this week, it's Wales and Wales only. It's going to be a huge Test."

Warren Gatland's men are a familiar foe to Ireland and as a 2013 Lion, O'Brien knows them as well as anyone.

He forged friendships in Australia that will go out the window for two hours this afternoon, and perhaps the most pertinent memory is of two years previous at the World Cup when Dan Lydiate carried out a plan to cut Ireland's most dynamic carrier down at the knees.

O'Brien has learnt to deal with the prospect of flankers hurling themselves at his ankles since and says Ireland are better set up to handle Wales these days.

"Dan's one of the best chop-tacklers out there and throughout their whole team they're very good choppers, they have good technique and we have to come up with different strategies to get away from that," he explains..

"Certainly they're one of the best in the business at that part of the game, but when we went to the World Cup we had no plan B to get away from that, a lot of the stuff was myself and (Stephen) Ferris trying to punch holes in them, but the game has evolved and changed since then.

"You've various options to do it, it's not one thing and we're all smart enough to know that, if someone's coming hard at your feet, you have to use your feet to try and get away from them.

"There's no point in running straight in towards Dan Lydiate, because you're going to get melted. Sam (Warburton) or Toby (Faletau) either, they're just as effective at it. On the day of the game, we'll hopefully have learnt to get away from their main threats on the ball."

O'Brien's return to fitness heralded fresh hope that his unique ability to break tackles would open up the game for Ireland, who played a conservative game-plan for much of November.

The much-hoped for tries have not followed, however, in a claustrophobic Six Nations campaign to date.

There was a time where beating France and England would give the team a free pass for the rest of the year, but the Championship is on the line and the World Cup is looming.

With this group of players, there is no scope to step off.

"It's not good enough to go out and not perform. That's the expectation and the standards we set ourselves to make sure we perform every time," O'Brien insists.

"It's certainly something the players have learnt, we want to successful and achieve big things and we have to do everything in our control to do that.

"It is getting harder to (break defences) at this level, defences are gone a bit smarter, people are more physical and they're faster, so it's getting harder to break things down and break through.

"Over the last few games we have created a good few opportunities and we haven't finished them as we'd have liked, but the main thing to take thing out of that is to try and learn."

Today, they get their chance to write their names in history with an 11th straight win and set up a second successive title next week.

Everything else fades into insignificance for a man making up for lost time.

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