Saturday 20 January 2018

Sean O'Brien: If it was France last week I would have played

Hungry Lions unleashed in bid to seize control of Six Nations title defence

David Kelly

David Kelly

CIAN Healy and Sean O'Brien haven't played international rugby for a cumulative total of 25 months; Jamie Heaslip has just endured the longest lay-off in a career hitherto virtually untroubled by injury.

Johnny Sexton, too, has been sidelined after his much-publicised concussion during the November series.

All four, though, return to Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad for tomorrow's decisive Six Nations clash with France where the losers, more than likely, will already be relying on mathematics to secure the title.

Throwing match-shy players into the intensity of international rugby would be deemed an extravagance in many quarters; not when this trio are concerned, though, albeit Schmidt expresses minor caution.

"It's a long time since they have played," admits Schmidt, referring specifically to O'Brien and Healy in a bench containing 155 caps, with an average age of 29.

"It's not perfect and our performance may reflect that. Hopefully they can get tempo into our game; it builds confidence, the team know these guys have been in tight situations before."

For all Schmidt's thinly-veiled caution at letting his Lions off the leash, you wonder what it would have been like to restrain them; after all, he pointedly averred last week that Heaslip was fit to play in Rome.

Now, he returns while Healy is "jumping out of his skin" to play after being close to getting over the line last week; O'Brien made it all the way to the end of the warm-up before dramatically scratching when his hamstring innocuously pinged as he caught a foot in the appalling Stadio Olimpico surface.

"I was thinking the worst," says O'Brien. "But I knew it wasn't too bad. Then again, I knew it wasn't great, I couldn't go, 'Here, I'll chance playing', and end up tearing the whole hamstring off.

"I was honest with the doctor and I was honest with Joe as well. He said, 'How is it?' and I said, 'It's very, very tight.' I didn't think I could run straight away, either, so that was it."

ROAD-TESTED

Given he had road-tested his shoulder successfully a week earlier against the Wolfhounds, discovering weakness elsewhere was a bolt from the blue.

"Coming back from something long-term like shoulder surgery, even though you've done a lot of weights and leg work there is always the risk of a soft-tissue injury, especially with the load that I've been going through the last month or so.

"The training has been increased so it was just one of those things."

He could have pushed himself but 2015 has more to offer.

"If it was a World Cup final I could have played probably, yeah! But I didn't.

"I probably would have if it was this week it happened, because you would have a week to assess things. It was just probably too risky. There was no point in me going out there half-cocked: we had lads ready to rock."

He was also caught on a monitor looking pretty peeved but it was only because one of Ireland's lineouts had gone awry; his own anguish was not as intense as many might have presumed.

"It was a bad picture for everyone to see!" he smiles. "They thought I was depressed!

"I was very disappointed because I really wanted to play. I felt really good all week and I was just so happy to be back involved and to be named in the starting team.

"And then for that to happen, it's obviously going to affect you a little bit.

"I don't think it's going to be a concern coming back because the intensity of our training has been really, really high in the last few weeks, plus I've done a lot of fitness over the last month or so as well even though I'm only coming back in.

"I've only played 50 minutes but I feel very good, and I felt better every week that's gone by. Training doesn't match games but if you're training at a higher intensity than you play a game, which we try to emulate here, it certainly stands to you.

"Obviously I'll be blowing hard and I'll hopefully get a lot of minutes under my belt this week but there is nothing can replace a game. It will be tough but at the same time we're conditioned enough and we have a very strong bench to come on."

Healy forms a significant part of that reserve artillery; originally slated to feature for Leinster against the Dragons this weekend, he has again confounded medics, as he did last year, by returning earlier from his hamstring surgery.

"Like, schedules are for Joe Soap," he says disarmingly. "It's not a worry going out training and it won't be going out playing.

"I've been jumping out of my skin for the last two months. It probably would have been around the start of last week when I passed the final tests.

BLEW

"There was one I had to get through and I blew it out of the water so that was the last one I felt I needed to get done before I could return properly."

Sexton's return from concussion has already prompted his Racing Metro colleague Bernard Le Roux to offer that the out-half might be as well off wearing a helmet; it was meant as a joke, albeit in the current climate, it would seem a pretty distasteful attempt at humour.

"He actually has a lot to his game," says O'Brien of Le Roux. "He's probably an all-round back rower.

"Back-rowers coming on the scene nowadays have a bit of everything. He has that. He's able to chop very hard. He's able to carry. He's a good lineout operator and he's very strong over the ball.

"He is definitely a massive threat. He's young, enthusiastic and full of energy. He's someone we'll have to keep a close eye on this week.

"Johnny knows him better than anyone else so we'll have to keep an eye on him.

"They are big, physical men and when you play against France you know you have played against France.

"I remember a World Cup warm-up game and it was the same thing: a big, hard, physical game. We know how hard it will be.

"We know they can be unpredictable, that they can throw the ball around and that they have threats everywhere.

"Their back three are like lightning so we can't be giving them any scraps. We can't be sloppy."

This Ireland team looks more than equipped to avoid just that.

While Peter O'Mahony blithely notes that every week's squad is the strongest squad available, both O'Brien and Healy are a little more enthusiastic.

"It's probably the best team I've played in when you look at it," agrees O'Brien. "You look at our bench as well.

"Obviously, I've been missing for a good while now. It's good and it's exciting and it's good to see we have that strength in depth there now."

Healy violently avers. "It's a squad that we have everyone on the same page, everyone's working in the same direction, and everyone knows what needs to go into the job to get to where we want to be."

Irish Independent

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