No matter where he plays, Seán O’Brien will have Australia at sixes and sevens
Happy anywhere in the backrow, seven is nonetheless his favourite position
Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Conor Murray and Devin Toner congratulate Seán O’Brien after his try against Samoa last week. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It’s funny the way things pan out. Seán O’Brien had a fabulous World Cup personally as Ireland went through the pool stages unbeaten for the first time ever, only for the tournament to end with an awful anti-climax in that quarter-final defeat by Wales.
By contrast, the Lions tour last summer was almost entirely frustrating, only for it to finish on one of the high of his entire career with a starting and starring role in the decisive third Test.
Yet looking back on it now, it still makes him angry as he reveals how annoyed he became with the Lions coaches.
The omens were not good from the start. Not helped by a slight knee injury, O’Brien played in three successive midweek games, against the Western Force, Queensland/New South Wales Country and the Brumbies before the first Test.
It was hardly the cast of games for a putative Test starter, and to cap it off the Brumbies game “was a disaster of a game for all of us”.
“We got a team that was thrown together the day before and we had no structure and we were all over the place; and that didn’t do us any favours. It was very frustrating, that part of the tour for me, because I knew I was in a place where I was playing pretty well personally but the team not doing well that day put me out of contention.”
Despite his ability to play across the backrow, O’Brien missed out altogether for the first Test, and admits he didn’t take it well.
Upset and angry
“My gut was churning when the squad was announced and I didn’t hear my name coming out. I was upset and angry.”
“I was pleading my case to them that I was in good form, more so to Graham Rowntree than Gats.
“He knew that I was very frustrated. I went to him (Rowntree) after being left out of the first Test and I was very, very upset.
“I was fuming, so I was, not to be involved, because I was training well. My versatility should have been a help and I thought we needed carriers, which, when you look back on it, we didn’t have in the first two Tests.
“Graham Rowntree said to me afterwards I was the only one who came to him that was angry and hurt over the whole thing, which he liked, he said.”
Even in the win over the Rebels in Melbourne, few try-scorers have looked so discontented after scoring.
The following day, when the team for the second Test was announced to the players, O’Brien had at least been elevated to the bench.
“If I was left out again, completely, I would have been in a bad place. I wouldn’t have been sitting quietly trying to work out what I was thinking. I don’t know how I would have reacted, to be honest.”
However, by the time he came on in the 62nd minute for Jamie Heaslip, the tide was turning towards Australia and Adam Ashley-Cooper’s try earned them a one-point win.
Even so, he was confident of being picked for the decider.
“I was thinking ‘he has to change it this week and he’s going to have to pick carriers and he’s going to have to pick a bigger team’. I was confident enough of starting the last one, especially after Sam [Warburton] getting injured. Even if Sam wasn’t injured I was hoping to be at six, just purely to carry.”
Yet he recalls: “I was just feeling all over the place and I remember coming to 50 or 55 minutes I was puffing and panting and my legs were getting heavier. I had a bit of a knee strain for the last couple of weeks of the tour and I got turned upside down one time at a ruck and the knee gave me an awful dart again.
“I was happy enough with the shift I put in but it was time for me to come aboard and the fresh legs came on to finish off the job.”
By the time he was called ashore almost on the hour mark, Johnny Sexton’s try had secured a 29-16 lead and sealed the deal.
“The one thing that stands out to me, I suppose, is the fans. The amount of Irish over there was ridiculous, crazy. The other thing was the camaraderie between all the players.
“I couldn’t say that there was one lad that annoyed me or that I didn’t get on all that well with. The squad itself was a happy squad and one that clicked.”
Warren Gatland sees O’Brien as more of a “six”, a debate revived on radio this week by Liam Toland, but O’Brien’s own preference is for “seven”.
“I can play all three, and that’s not going to change. I’d still be very comfortable at eight and six but for this team at the minute it (seven) is probably the best place for me.
“Pete (O’Mahony) is doing a lot of carrying and a lot of dirty work as well at six and he’s flying. And Jamie (Heaslip) is just very consistent, as he always is, so I can’t see why I can’t stay at seven. I’m very happy there and I’ve been working on my game a lot there.”
He admits there’s been pain with the gain, not least a better appreciation of when not to contest at the breakdown and so reduce his penalty count.
“After last season I was unhappy with a lot of things, one of them being a bit of discipline in big games.
“ I gave away a penalty or two and backrowers are going to live on the edge, but at the same time when I looked back on certain things they were a bit silly.
“The biggest thing around the breakdown area is to make a good judgment as quickly as possible and then you don’t get done for those type of things then because you’re either in or you’re out.”
He has also watched other sevens more closely and over the next two weeks he’s liable to come against two of the very best in Michael Hooper and Richie McCaw.
“Hooper is a very, very, very good player,” he says admiringly of a player he believes should have started the third Test. “He’s not that big but he’s real dynamic. He’s fast, he’s able to carry, he’s a nuisance at the breakdown, and he makes the decision really, really early. He either goes in really hard or he stays out and goes in for the next one. He’s definitely one of their best players.”
O’Brien himself is, arguably, Ireland’s best player pound for pound, and you’d hope the IRFU appreciate the commodity at their disposal. Players with his sheer ballast in contact, his ability to come up with a power play that shreds all analysis or the manual, are exceptional.
You wonder if he’s conscious of the extra demands that would in all probability be heaped upon him were he to move to France?
“I am conscious of it, alright, but I’m built for hardship. If that’s the way it goes, that’s the way it goes. Johnny is after having a lot of game time. I suppose backrowers over there would be rotated a little bit more than an out-half.
“On the same note, you definitely would play a lot of games.”
O’Brien, a fairly easy-going lad, maintains he’s “not too fussed” about when his contract negotiations are resolved, and is happy to leave things until after this November window.
“I’ve bigger things to think about at the minute. It will be sorted when it’s sorted and I’m not panicking about it. I’ve a full year. It’s not as if it has to be signed before Christmas or anything.”
Not unlike Trevor Brennan, who also came from the Leinster Youths set-up, you sense the pride of Tullow rugby would be a big hit in France, while also learning a new language and culture.
“I’ve thought about this before. If I have to do it, as I said to my family, it might come to it that I’ll have to go and I’m probably prepared to do that if things aren’t the way I want them or as best as they can be here.
“That’s just life and I’ll have to make a decision based on what’s good for me. I have to be a bit selfish about these things as well.”
O’Brien has already started to step back from working on his father’s farm and coaching Tullow one or two nights a week, as he came to realise he was “spreading myself too thinly” and not looking after himself as best as he could.
“That’s where you’ve got to be a bit selfish about as well. The farm will be there when I’m finished playing rugby, so I’ll have lots of time to farm but I’ve only seven or eight years, max, to get the best out of rugby. They’re my priorities at the minute. That’s what pays the bills.”
Yet there’s also a sense of responsibility and loyalty to Leinster. Ideally, O’Brien and Heaslip should inherit the baton from the long established leadership group. He likes taking on the “ownership” and would hate to give up that role lightly.
“Yeah, we built this. We built what’s in Leinster, that big group of us over the last five or six years and it’s something you don’t want to let go of too handy. I often hear experienced players going ‘you want more and more’, and we want more and more. We want to be more successful and we want to take ownership ourselves, the players.”
A similar scenario might apply to this Ireland side one day, although even with a core of captains and experienced players it feels like a new era under Joe Schmidt, with a new forwards coach, new ideas and a new system.
“Everything is different. Joe is a perfectionist and he loves his detail but he is relentless in his pursuit of getting us to a place where we can go out and potentially win games.”
“I have confidence with him straight away. If you’re accurate and you know your game and you do what he asks of you, you won’t be too far away. You’ll either be winning or you’ll be very close to winning.”
The last time these sides met, Ireland had their finest one-off World Cup win ever at Eden Park, with 11 of today’s Ireland side in that line-up from over two years ago.
“I think the game plan maybe we had the last day we played Australia, maybe this one is a better game plan.”
O’Brien believes they can draw confidence from that win but acknowledges Australia are much changed even from the side he faced with the Lions, never mind two years ago.
The Wallabies this week, the All Blacks next, these are “the scalps you want to get” and these are the years when he wants to make hay, as it were.
“We’re probably ready to rock now, and with the whole new system coming in here I don’t think we have an excuse anymore. We have the players, we have the coaches now, we have the facilities, we’ve everything at our disposal, so there can be no excuses now.
“We can’t say ‘we didn’t have this, or we didn’t have that’ It’s on us now. We’re being given the information of what to do and if we go and do that we’ll be successful.” Simple as.