Seán O’Brien ready to lead the charge against Australia

Forwards coach Plumtree ranks flanker among the very best in the world

Ireland’s Sean O’Brien in action against Johnny Leota of Samoa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland’s Sean O’Brien in action against Johnny Leota of Samoa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Tue, Nov 12, 2013, 07:56

Seán O’Brien may be on another branch of the rugby evolutionary tree from Will Genia. But the chances are the Ireland flanker and Australia scrumhalf will tangle. Predator and prey spring to mind and Genia will be the reluctant party.

For all of his ability, Genia was pressured at Twickenham two weeks ago with one box kick charged down by prop Mako Vunipola. The subsequent delivery to Chris Robshaw sparked England’s comeback.

The ploy of asking the Wallaby scrumhalf to perform within inches of the clawing hands of the Ireland pack is far from a new practice. But as the focus of much of Australia’s attack Genia may be susceptible to pressure.

Wallaby coach, Ewen McKenzie described the charge down as “disappointing” and rejected suggestions the players around had not done enough to protect his number nine. Tough love seems to be McKenzie’s style and the marauding O’Brien may consider making the sniping Genia even more of the focus of the coach’s attention.

While Ulster flanker Chris Henry is out for the series with a torn hamstring, Tommy Bowe and Johnny Sexton are on target to play following niggles. Shane Jennings and Luke Fitzgerald have been drafted in but the Leinster back is regarded as precautionary cover for Bowe, who is expected to be fit. Munster’s Keith Earls continues to recover from patella tendonitis.

Bowe’s calf was bruised on Saturday and Sexton has been nursing a hip but it was George Pisi’s dangerous tackle on the Ireland right wing that has officially landed him in trouble.

The Samoan has been cited after receiving a yellow card, although he was also seen to apologise before leaving the pitch. Leinster play his club Northampton in the Heineken Cup on December 7th in Franklin’s Gardens and any mid range suspension there could hurt.

But Joe Schmidt should be thankful his squad is largely intact with O’Brien leading the charge. Australia will have watched closely. Not a typical seven, but Ireland forwards coach, John Plumtree, places the Tullow openside flanker among the best.

“Seán’s right up there. I’ve worked with some good loosies in the past, in Wellington, South Africa, but Seán’s definitely right up there,” said Plumtree yesterday.

“I’ve enjoyed watching him and I’m sure he’s really looking forward to this weekend, going up against some good players. He’s always been a good player, you just get more accurate in what you do and a better understanding of what you do. And you get smarter as well.

“Seán knows the game and that’s what has impressed me. He’s also a very good jumper, which really surprised me because you look at his body make-up, he’s built like a brick but he’s actually quite explosive.

“Your seven is sort of more of a tackler and a poacher, but Seán is a very competent ball runner, which makes him able to play any position really in the backrow. That makes him very valuable. You look at Richie McCaw, those types of players, pretty comfortable in any position in the backrow and Seán looks like he is that type of player. A very valuable player to have in the team.”

New scrum laws
Anything Vunipola (who will not recover from a knee in jury in time to play for England against New Zealand this weekend) can do, Mike Ross should feel he can do too. Even if the legs are taking the brunt of the new scrum laws, the car crash pressure on players’ backs has been reduced.

But the Irish prop feels satisfied with the way the set piece worked against Samoa, his first game against them. Australia will be more organised, more clinical and more difficult to play.

Ross knows that, although a distraction, the opinion is that Australia are more vulnerable now than in previous visits. They have lost to the Lions, New Zealand, South Africa and most recently England. Like Ireland they also have a new coach, who is unafraid to change the status quo.

“There’s a perception out there that Australia are on the wane or whatever but I don’t agree with that,” says Ross. “You look at who they’ve been losing to. They’re all top teams and, are they third in the world. That shows you where they are at the moment.”

Changed captain
Plumtree is also a wary admirer of McKenzie, who changed the team captain from secondrow James Horwill to backrow, Ben Mowen. He also axed star fullback James O’Connor from the tour for a drink fuelled incident in Perth.

“I know James [Horwill] but I don’t know Ben very well. They’ll have their reasons why they did it,” says Plumtree. “I think under Robbie [Deans] there were little off-field issues and I think he [McKenzie] has been hard on that. They had that latest issue with James O’Connor.

“He is a no-nonsense sort of a coach. He will have a pretty tough culture and if you look at their stats over the last four or five games they have scored 18 tries, walloped Argentina away, went down against England and had a good win against Italy. I think he’s a good coach.”

McKenzie, Genia, outhalf Quade Cooper . . . there’s a lot to like.

The perceived Aussie weaknesses could be all there is.