O’Brien prepared to ‘go up the guts’ for Ireland against Italy
Leinster flanker is powered up and ready to be Ireland’s main man in Rome
Ireland’s Seán O’Brien in action against Italy in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Seán O’Brien could be a key man today. Rarely committing more than one or two to the breakdown in defence, Italy regroup and fill the pitch quickly. If Ireland are to make inroads closer in around the fringes, the more carries O’Brien makes, and specifically the more times he breaks the defensive line and offloads, the closer they will be to winning this game.
Last week England fell into the trap of going side to side against the Azzurri in being kept tryless, with their former World Cup winning coach imploring them to “go up the guts”. The RTÉ panellists swiftly came to the conclusion that O’Brien is the main man for this Italian job, all the more so if the support runners starting flooding his channel look for offloads.
The problem for the flanker is that not alone is he Ireland’s go-to carrier, he is also their most targeted player defensively, and it doesn’t help his cause that so many of his carries are as first receiver, where the traffic is most congested. The heavy rain of the two games has also made offloading even riskier, witness his offload in the second-half last weekend which Conor Murray couldn’t hold.
“They’re all things that everyone else is looking for. If it’s on for an offload I will try and get it away,” he says before adding another caveat about the Italians’ less porous defence. “The big thing is that the tackler does a very good job in their half. He gets back on his feet and competes, and makes opposition teams throw numbers in and the rest of them are just fanning out, so we’ll have to break them down and go through the middle of them before we can take them on out wide.”
Lions in focus
Warren Gatland’s presence at Tuesday’s training also brought the Lions squad announcement in less than four weeks a little more sharply into focus, although he’s such an innately practical lad you believe O’Brien when he conveys that he is less consumed than others.
“I’d be lying if I was saying it’s not in the back of my mind, but it’s not the be all and end all at the minute. You’re aware that it’s there but it’s something I haven’t given a whole lot of thought to over the last couple of weeks. Trying to get a win on the board here is of utmost importance.”
Irish numbers are liable to be down to seven or eight, compared to the 14 who were originally picked on the back of the 2009 Grand Slam, but even though the backrow is uber competitive, O’Brien looks like one of Ireland’s likelier lads.
O’Brien first became a Lions fan during 2001 and the wizardry of O’Driscoll in Oz, while the DVDs from 1997 onwards have fairly hooked him too. “To be honest with you looking at all those DVDs does put a shiver up your spine sometimes and it’s the ultimate thing that any rugby player can achieve.”
If form is to take in the last couple of seasons, then the odds on O’Brien going are further enhanced. Those odds did appear to hit a potential snag when he underwent operations on both hips in the summer, but if anything his delayed start to the season may be a blessing.
It wasn’t so much that O’Brien was playing through the pain barrier, more that the pain prevented him from training after games. The problem had been troubling him for almost a year, intensifying after the Heineken Cup and effectively sidelining him from training during the New Zealand tour. “I definitely had a loss of power in games during that time which was frustrating but I was trying to adapt as best I could to get through games.”
Nor did O’Brien have any doubts after the operations himself. “I knew it was going to be sorted and then it was up to me to get myself right again and I did that. It took me a couple of months to get myself back moving properly but it never crossed my mind that I was in doubt of becoming a bad player or anything like that, or that the hips wouldn’t be fine.”
His return against Glasgow at the end of November came one week ahead of his projected 20-week recuperation, and although the Leinster-Clermont games came a little soon, he’s been back to his best since the turn of the year. His tackle count and tally of carries have been enormous, and he’s also embraced more of a leadership role, the biggest blemish by his own admission being a couple of needlessly conceded penalties.
“I’m very happy with the form. I’m trying to help the lads as best I can because there’s a bigger responsibility on me now within the team, whether it be carrying ball or getting my jobs right as best I can. I’ve made a couple of mistakes no doubt in the Six Nations, but it’s about sharpening up on those type of things and trying to be error free if you can.”
In jury toll
It’s been a tough, trying Six Nations for Ireland after the promise of the opening day win over Wales, what with ensuing back-to-back defeats, an ever-worsening injury toll and a head coach under fire. That the spirit has remained strong despite all this was shown by the performance against France.
“As a group we know that we can’t let that stuff affect us. If we roll up our sleeves as a group and work hard, we know then what’s going to do it regardless of all the external things. We’ve a very, very young squad at the minute,” he says. “It’s definitely a starting point for this team from which to move forward.”
“The coaches and management team are working as hard as they can as well,” he adds. “We see what they’re putting in. They’re not leaving any stone unturned and if you look back at the English or Scottish games we’d ourselves to blame for not finishing off the games. They can only give us so much. We have to be really honest with ourselves as players and I think we have been and I think last weekend we did show a lot of togetherness.”
Time was when a trek to Rome might have been seen as a handy finale, but this is a much changed Azzurri and O’Brien maintains the seeds were already sown last season.
“They’re changing their style of rugby and they'll have a crack now from anywhere. If you kick stupid ball to them they’re going to run it back at you, and they still have that platform of their maul and their scrum to get their forwards involved. Physicality is obviously a big thing with them and they’re going to be a passionate bunch at home. We have to be in a really good place mentally and physically come the weekend.”
St Patrick’s weekend and Ireland's first sampling of a capacity Olympic Stadium makes for “a hell of an occasion” he says. “People often say to me ‘that must be intimidating?’ If anything it’s exciting. Well it is for me, personally anyway, to get a buzz off a good atmosphere regardless of where you’re playing. It can be either be intimidating, all that noise, or the challenge is to keep them quiet.”
O’Brien, needlessly to say, will take up the challenge.