Sean O'Brien on Pape punch: 'France made a good song and dance about it'
O'Brien has mixed emotions over World Cup ban
Perhaps nothing captured the sense of frustration of Ireland's World Cup exit than the images of the players who couldn't be involved watching on from a Millennium Stadium corporate box with a haunted look in their eyes.
At one end of the back row, Paul O'Connell had his head in his hands. On the other, Johnny Sexton wore a look of despair. In the middle, Sean O'Brien cut perhaps the most disconsolate figure.
The others couldn't play because of injury or selection, but the Tullow native knew that he had been taken out of the equation because of a rush of blood to the head in the opening minutes of the pool decider against France when he punched Pascal Papé in the midriff.
He didn't think a whole lot of it at the time and went on to play one of his greatest games in a green jersey as Joe Schmidt's side topped the pool.
But as the dust settled and the injury reports rolled in, it became apparent that the television cameras had captured the incident and before long the openside flanker was cited.
He pleaded guilty and headed to London for a hearing hoping to escape with a slap on the wrist, but as it stretched on for seven hours he began to realise it might not go his way. Ultimately, he got a two-week ban, reduced by seven days based on his clean record.
Already without O'Connell, Jared Payne, Peter O'Mahony and Sexton, Schmidt now had to deal with the absence of his top-performing player and ultimately his side failed to fire in the biggest game of their careers.
"It was frustrating and obviously it was very disappointing afterwards," O'Brien conceded yesterday. "I'd a huge disappointment because I was fit. The other lads weren't, but I was fit and I couldn't play because I'd done something silly.
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"That wasn't nice. Afterwards, you're looking around at lads who have given everything on the field, knowing that you could have been there and could have done something about what happened early on.
"In games like that, you need people to go out there and lead, to step up. We were just off the beat by a yard that day and we got done early on, we were chasing the game. It was a massive disappointment, that whole day."
It might be Champions Cup week, but less than a month has passed since Ireland's exit and it still lingers over the season. Yesterday's promotional event for Supermac's at the Barack Obama Plaza in Moneygall was the first time O'Brien has spoken publicly about the events of that day and it is clear that Papé's actions still grate.
The France second-row likes to play on the edge and came looking for a reaction when he tugged back O'Brien in the opening minutes of that pool decider. He got it, but the officials missed the punch.
Although he claimed in evidence that he had suffered a "violent pain", the bruising lock managed to play a full part in the rest of the game. It was his clear-out that ended O'Connell's tournament, his tackle that brought O'Mahony's contribution to an end.
He even had another go at O'Brien early in the second half without getting the desired reaction, yet his evidence about the debilitating effect of the flanker's dig played a big part in the suspension.
"If the shoe was on the other foot I certainly wouldn't be whinging or crying about it," O'Brien said.
"But that's the decision they made at the time and I think their coach had a big part to play in it as well with the way he reacted. It shouldn't have happened, I shouldn't have done it; I took everything out of the equation then. But they made a good song and dance about it when they had an opportunity to.
"Twenty past one I walked in and it was 20 past eight coming out. It was a pretty big ordeal as I'd admitted guilt the night before, so they knew that.
"It was a pretty tiring and worrying day. After admitting guilt, I thought it'd be done and dusted with and I'd be out of there pretty quickly and we could plan our next step, but it wasn't the case.
"They went through everything with a fine-tooth comb and I got handed the two-match ban, reduced to one, which wasn't ideal.
"I didn't think too much about it at the time. If you look at it in real time, it was so quick . . . It probably shouldn't have happened obviously and I paid the price for it.
"At the same time, there's a part of me that regrets it and a part of me that doesn't. I think it put a statement out to a few of their bully boys that we weren't going to be bullied. Obviously the bigger picture, it shouldn't have happened but it did and that's the way it is."
The O'Brien hearing, which took place on the Tuesday of the quarter-final week, came hot on the heels of the news that O'Connell's injury had forced him into premature international retirement - an announcement which was bizarrely delayed by 48 hours by the Ireland management.
Externally, it meant that the focus slipped from the game itself and, while O'Brien felt training went well that week, he concedes that the distractions had an impact on the players involved.
"You couldn't write the script, missing five guys - that's a third of your team. It's not an excuse, but take five guys out of any team in the world and you're not going to be the same," he said. "At the same time, I have loads of confidence in everyone who was there. It's just we didn't get out of the blocks quick enough and they did. We were chasing the game.
"We played well in parts of the game, we played very well to get ourselves back within touching distance and that's just the way it was. These things happen, you move on and go about your business and try and build again. That's sport for you.
"The week that was in it, between everything that happened, it was a difficult one to get revved up for. There were all sorts of external distractions, but at the same time I thought training was good. There was a lot of energy about, a lot of confidence, a lot of positivity.
"There wasn't anyone on the field that you'd go, 'Jesus, he's not on form'. Everyone was training really well, playing well.
"It's just we gave them a few opportunities and they got a run on us. You're chasing the game then. If you start the game a little bit better it changes the dynamic, you get stuck into them a little bit better and it stops them from getting momentum. It just didn't work out for us and it wasn't a nice place to be."
Despite O'Connell's retirement and the failure to get beyond the last eight at the World Cup yet again, O'Brien is optimistic about Ireland's prospects.
"You look at the younger players who have come through; the Jack McGraths, the Iain Hendersons . . . Iain Henderson could be one of the best players in the world, how exciting is that?" he said. "You've Johnny, you've Pete, you've Tommy O'Donnell, Rhys Ruddock to come back, all these lads are class players and that's an exciting place.
"Once you have everyone fit and well, we've a great squad and a great shout against anyone. Over the next six months even we have to move on very quickly. You've Robbie Henshaw who has developed into a serious player, Jared to come back in . . . We have loads of players, we have depth and we just need everyone fit and well to do something very special.
"The next opportunity we have is to try to win another Six Nations."
Part of the moving-on process involves performing for the provinces, beginning on Sunday as Leinster open their Champions Cup campaign against Wasps.
Leo Cullen took the team for a mini-camp to Wicklow this week where they continued to integrate their internationals back into the fold as he puts his own stamp on the squad after taking over from Matt O'Connor.
O'Brien believes his former captain's elevation and the return of Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa has lifted the standards at Leinster training and he hopes that will feed into a successful campaign.
"The standard had gone up," he said. "Our standards probably weren't what they should have been last year and if we can get that back to where it was previously we will be in a very good place with the talent and depth that we have.
"It's all about us driving it on. It's down to the players, but it's also driven by the management team to ensure that they are driving it and make sure they are giving us the right messages all the time as well. It's an exciting place."
The World Cup hurt will last for a while, but Leinster fans will be hoping that O'Brien works out his frustration on the pitch in the weeks to come. If he hits the levels he showed against France, then the pool of death might become a bit more manageable.