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.”