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Versatile Jimmy O’Brien rides crest of the wave to potential Ireland debut

Former GAA and Newbridge stalwart could well pull on green jersey against Maori All Blacks

This time a year ago, Jimmy O’Brien wouldn’t have been too prominently placed on Ireland’s radar but as his good mate Hugo Keenan has also demonstrated, if a player can make it at Leinster then the next step suddenly isn’t too far away.

O’Brien had only played one Champions Cup match prior to this season, but his run of games and form with Leinster should lead to him pulling on the green jersey at senior level for the first time. It may not be a Test per se, but no less than for many of the Maori All Blacks, Wednesday’s opening tour game at the FMG Stadium in Hamilton (kick-off 7.05pm local time/8.05am Irish) will be the high point of O’Brien’s career to date.

“Yeah, it would be top, more than likely. I haven’t even thought about it like that to be honest but to play for Ireland has been a dream, pretty much for everyone playing rugby in Ireland growing up, and it was my dream as well.”

Indeed, for the boy from GAA territory in Kildare, the dream was harnessed in an unlikely way.


“My dad brought me and my younger brother to the Heineken Cup final in 2006 in the Millennium Stadium when Munster won. Because Leinster and Munster were in the semi-final he bought tickets for the final before that match.

“I wasn’t a big fan then, I was so young,” recalled O’Brien after the squad’s training session last Saturday.

As to whether he wore red or not, he laughed. “I don’t think I did to be honest, but I’m not sure!”

One memory from that day in Cardiff when Munster finally reached the promised land by beating Biarritz stands out. “Some Munster lad behind my brother just picked him up when they scored, so he went flying up in the air. My brother was eight and he was fairly scared, and was like: ‘what’s going on?’ Yer man was like: ‘I’m sorry, I was just overtaken there.’ It was good craic.”

Another abiding memory was Ireland’s Grand Slam coronation in the same ground three years later.

“I remember watching that in Naas Rugby Club, with my dad, my uncles and my brother. So that’s probably my earliest memory of wanting to play for Ireland.”

O’Brien began playing mini rugby with the Naas under-7s through the influence of his uncle Toby Sheridan. Needless to say, until Tadhg Beirne came along, Eadestown wasn’t known for its rugby players, albeit Rowan Osborne and Connacht’s Diarmuid Kilgallen have since emerged as well.

“When I was younger Emmet Bolton, was the big shot in Eadestown, because he was playing for Kildare and was one of their best players, but there were no real rugby players around until Tadgh started playing.”

O’Brien was initially a scrumhalf with Newbridge College before switching to outhalf and centre, returning to Naas in fourth year in school when declining the school’s request to play against Blackrock in the Senior Cup.

“I was like: ‘I don’t want to play. We’re going to lose like 100-nil.’ So they didn’t ask me back again that season. I went back playing for Naas and they did end up losing by 70-0 or something.”

O’Brien also played gaelic football from the age of six or seven through to 17 before Leinster under-age call-ups meant rugby held sway.

After a year in Leinster’s sub-academy, he was promoted to their senior academy before a two-year detour on the 7s, which perhaps both benefitted and hindered his 15-a-side career.

“I think you can look at it both ways,” he admitted. “It could have delayed my chances of playing with Leinster but it also probably made me a better player, because I went into the academy as a ‘10/12′, and now I’m like a winger/fullback.

“It definitely helped with speed and it probably helped me find a position, so definitely there’s a lot of things it helped. Maybe I could have been playing for Leinster earlier but would I have been playing? Or would I have made it then if I didn’t have that (7s exposure)? I get asked that question a lot and I’ve thought about it a lot but I don’t know.”

He reckons his long-range passing, one-on-one tackling in space were also sharpened by his time with the Ireland 7s, when his friendship with Keenan grew. The latter’s parents, Avril and Paul, will travel to New Zealand with O’Brien’s, John and Caroline.

“The four of them are doing a joint trip, so they’re delighted. I think they’re actually missing the first game, which is disappointing, but they’ll be over for two and a half weeks, so I’m looking forward to seeing them.”

This tour is all the more welcome after the anti-climactic finale to Leinster’s season.

“It was tough after the Heineken Cup final especially, very tough. I was convinced we were going to win it all the way up until whenever they scored. I can still remember looking at the clock, 78.50 and thinking: ‘I’m pretty sure he’s 90 seconds to kick it (the conversion)’.

“Some lads went: ‘No, he’s 60.’ I was pretty sure it was 90, and that will stick with me forever I’d say, that feeling in my stomach when that happened.”

It’s a measure of O’Brien’s versatility than in his 42 starts so far for Leinster, 21 have been at fullback, 10 at outside centre, five on the left wing and six on the right wing. There have been brief cameos at ‘9′ and ‘10′ too, with O’Brien the nominated stand-in at scrumhalf in the event of a yellow card in that position, as happened in the Champions Cup last-16 first leg away to Connacht. Such versatility could be an invaluable commodity in the Irish set-up and opportunity knocks for him now like never before.

“It’s a big opportunity to get picked on it (the squad). There’s so many good back three players in Ireland. I’m just hoping to get into one of the Test sides. That would be the big goal.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times