Friday 23 March 2018

'It'll just be a battle' - Sean O'Brien ready for breakdown ferocity against Wales

Ireland's Sean O'Brien at Carton House. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Sean O'Brien at Carton House. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Tom Rooney

If familiarity does indeed breed contempt, then Ireland’s Six Nations opener with Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday should prove downright hostile.

Of course, stirring the pot so to conjure juicy subplots as these particular Celtic nations prepare to do battle is, by now, a well practiced endeavour.

Though viewed as a relative success for his time as Ireland head coach, even the slightest of contentious comments from Warren Gatland is sufficient to get the ball rolling. 

And let’s not forget the fodder he provided for the Championship two years ago, having famously dropped Brain O’Driscoll for the third test of the previous summer’s Lions tour in Australia. In the mould of Thierry Henry, the acerbic Kiwi holds a villainous place in the Irish sporting psyche.

More importantly though, the beginning of Ireland’s quest for an unprecedented third successive outright title will mark the tenth occasion the countries have met since the turn of the decade.

Seven of those fixtures have been competitive, while the most recent two were World Cup friendlies (each country recorded a win) last August.

As it stands, of those seven meaningful tests, the Welsh have won four; three in the Six Nations and, of course, their masterful victory over Declan Kidney’s Ireland in the quarter final of the 2011 World Cup.

Ireland have taken Welsh scalps in the 2014, 2013 and 2010 editions of the Championship, as well as that unforgettable Grand Slam decider at the Millennium Stadium in 2009.

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Last year, Wales not only scuppered Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes in Cardiff but, through a colossal defensive effort, also demonstrated the limitations of Joe Schmidt’s compact game plan. In the aftermath, the former Leinster coach was on the wrong end of the critics' review for the first time since taking the national job.

Sean O’Brien has featured in six of those nine clashes, having first donned the Irish jersey in November 2009 and, for him, the Wales made in Gatland’s image holds little secrets. That said, foresight will not dull the impact of the deluge of collisions that must be won if Ireland wish to prevail on Sunday.

“They know us pretty well, we know them pretty well, and it’ll be a fairly similar affair come the weekend of what way they try to stop us and we try to stop them. It’ll just be a battle out there. We know them and they know us. It’s about implementing our game plan and putting them under pressure.”

On a more micro level, the opposing back rows are exceedingly well acquainted. Gatland’s preferred unit of Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate are, injury notwithstanding, as good as a nailed on certainty can possibly be at this level.

All three and, indeed, Justin Tipuric, were Lions teammates of O’Brien’s in 2013, as such  he’s extensively versed in what they bring to the table. Habits, good and bad, have long since been banked after a plethora of SWOT analyses over the years.

Conversely for Ireland, in Peter O’Mahony’s absence, the identity of the loose forward trio for this weekend is still up for debate.

Chances are that O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip will feature at seven and eight respectively, with either Rhys Ruddock or newcomer CJ Stander slotting in on the blindside. Unsurprisingly, O’Brien is eagerly awaiting the resumption of these well-worn rivalries.

“They’ve (Welsh back row) been playing together a long, long time now. They’re world class players and we always know it’s going to be a very tough day at the office in that area, and around the breakdown.

“They’re hugely physical as well throughout the whole pack, but especially the back row. It’s a nice challenge for us and one we’re looking forward to,” he said.

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