Practical O'Brien looking forward to the battle of the breakdown
Jamie Heaslip: "We strive to be consistently good. We can't go back in time."
IRELAND v ENGLAND:History, this week, is forbidden ground for players in the Irish camp. The job England carried out last year in Twickenham is verboten and the distinct impression is that behind the eager smiles in Carton House is a shrill inner voice asking why the hell do they keep bringing that match up. Thinking about 30-9 and last March is just breaking bad if you ask Sean O’Brien.
“Personally I don’t buy into it,” says the flanker about the last meeting. “A game is a game and it’s won or lost on the day. They beat us last year. It was a different time, different team, different players involved.”
Formidable logic from the back row is a feature of O’Brien’s personality and the Tullow man does not get distracted from the main point. But for Irish rugby consistency is one of this year’s unsolved equations.
O’Brien and captain Jamie Heaslip want to see a run of matches that will tweak Ireland’s profile to a team that delivers. The run of scores against New Zealand’s 42-10, 22-19 and 60-0 makes them almost bipolar.
“Train as you play is an old mantra my dad used to beat into me,” says Heaslip. “You could probably say in some games we rose to the challenge. If you look back to the World Cup we rose to the challenge of Australia and then probably let ourselves down, made some errors against Wales in the quarter-final.
“We rose to the challenge in the second Test against New Zealand and fell short in the first and third Test. You could put that twist on it but we’re quite focused on the now. We’re not too worried about what happened because it’s what happened. I don’t know if it’s an issue. We strive to be consistently good. We can’t go back in time.”
Heaslip and O’Brien face into a match where all parties believe that winning the breakdown will be first blood drawn and a platform to seize the match. Backrow effectiveness and getting the ball will, in the opening phases, highlight the nuanced art of grunt. All else comes after.
“Most games the breakdown is big,” says O’Brien. “If you lose that impetus early it’s hard to recover, teams have momentum. Obviously it’s going to be a massive area.”
With 23 tackles last week his numbers were eye-catching. He manifestly makes good what he says on the pitch but the sparkle of smart-looking stats sometimes lose their lustre, to his critical eye. Why he had to make 23 tackles is the fly in his ointment.
“It’s irrelevant, I think,” he says of 23. “They’re only numbers. You can be doing so much more. There’s a lot of unseen work, on the ground, organising defence.
“Yeah, the game shouldn’t have gone that way. The way we were playing we had to keep the ball a lot more in the second half and we didn’t do that. Even afterwards we spoke about that aspect of it.”
With James Haskell coming into the English backrow and Chris Robshaw making calls from there, the two captains will eyeball each other close up. They all know that first quarter will be an arm wrestle with more than bragging rights at stake. Thoughts of O’Driscoll, Zebo, Kearney and Gilroy offensively redundant because Ireland can’t fetch are heresy.
“He’s a very powerful individual,” says Heaslip of Haskill. “He’s got good skills. He’s got a quick burst of speed as well so I have to be aware of both ... he’s very good on the ground actually. When we have the ball I’ll have to keep an eye on him and Robshaw at the breakdown. He keeps himself in good shape. Looks after himself.”
“He’s a leader,” says O’Brien of Robshaw through a mesh of welts, bruises and nicks all in various shades of scarlet and burgundy. “I’ve said it before; any international backrow you come up against is a good player.”