Gerry Thornley: O’Brien desperate to make mark in battle for backrow
All eight loose forwards selected in the Lions squad could conceivably feature in the test series
It was interesting to hear Gatland speak so positively of O’Brien’s experience, chat and leadership off and on the pitch against the Crusaders. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Four years ago, Warren Gatland and his coaching staff picked seven backrowers in the Lions squad to tour Australia. Sam Warburton would miss out on the third test decider through injury, but somewhat remarkably given the normally high attrition rate amongst loose forwards, no replacements were required. Yet all seven featured in the three tests.
This time around, Gatland and co have picked eight backrowers, not including the versatility of locks such as Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson, and it’s conceivable that most will ultimately again feature in the test series.
The fascinating conundrum is who will make up the backrow in the first test on Saturday week, and in this regard no player will be under greater scrutiny in the fourth tour match against the Highlanders than Sam Warburton.
Reports of his “first test heartache” which awaited him due to the ankle injury he picked up in the tour opener against the Provincial Barbarians having proved misplaced, the Lions captain fielded Sunday’s inquisition about his wellbeing and prospects for the first test with his customary candour.
He admitted he needs games and, ideally, he confessed that he generally requires three to get up to speed. If it comes to pass that he does not feel match-fit for the first test, he will say as much to Gatland. It is such honesty that, in part, compelled Gatland to again choose Warburton as his captain.
Warburton also freely admitted that two of the best five opensides he has ever faced were squad mates on this tour, namely Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien. Interestingly, he also said that while backrowers had to be all-rounders capable of ticking every box, be it carrying, tackling, clearing out, they needed to have one exceptional quality.
Humbly, he ventured that winning turnovers at the breakdown, was his, and he would be looking to bring this to the game against the Highlanders. It’s not something that the Lions have been especially effective at heretofore, and were Warburton to do so under the closed roof in Dunedin, it would be a timely nudge toward Gatland and co.
This is all the more so as the Peter O’Mahony, O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau triumvirate threw down something of a marker against the Crusaders. There’s an innate balance to that trio, or as one coach put it, a good smell to them.
O’Mahony is a proper blindside, who does the donkey work of a ‘6’, whose capacity for big plays that have a meaningful impact on games often belie mere stats, and he is a world-class lineout operator. Playing the last quarter at openside against the Crusaders was another feather in his cap. Gatland evidently liked what he saw.
Faletau looks nailed on at ‘8’ for the first test, especially in light of Billy Vunipola’s withdrawal. Revelling in the rarefied air of test match rugby again, at 26-years-old Faletau looks to be in the prime of his powers. He had a huge workload against the Crusaders to augment the “world-class footwork” Gatland referred to afterwards.
Despite one knock-on at the end of a potent Lions attack, CJ Stander gave the Lions a carrying option around the corner off the bench, and the Highlanders game could conceivably offer him the chance to force his way into the test-match squad.
Four years ago, O’Brien missed out on the first test altogether, with the Lions opting for a backrow of Tom Croft, Warburton and Toby Faletau, and Dan Lydiate on the bench. Lydiate replaced Croft for the last eight minutes, and at blindside for the second test, with Croft reverting to the bench.
Croft’s ability to cover second-row also enabled Gatland to pick O’Brien, straining at the leash, on the bench as well. Both Croft and O’Brien came on for much of the last quarter, in place of Heaslip and Warburton.
For the third test, Gatland and co chose O’Brien to start at openside in place of the injured Warburton, and also opted to refresh the backrow by starting Faletau in place of Heaslip, and Tipuric on the bench. The 41-16 win largely vindicated this selection.
So no less than the Welsh trio of Warburton, Faletau and Tipuric, O’Brien has credit in the bank. With that in mind, it was interesting to hear Gatland speak so positively of O’Brien’s experience, chat and leadership off and on the pitch against the Crusaders.
O’Brien may have missed out on the win over the All Blacks in Chicago, which must gall him given he has been consistently excellent against them, and was again in the Aviva Stadium a fortnight later when positioning himself over the ball to win turnovers that he had no right to make, as well as his rampaging runs and big hits.
What that 80 minute performance also underlined, given the Chicago game came just too soon for him and he went into the return with an outing against the Canadians a week before, is that he can reach proper test match levels of fitness quite quickly. That’s also because he is “a test match animal”.
What was striking about O’Brien’s performance against the Crusaders was how fit and strong he looked. Despite not playing since early April with a recurring calf problem, O’Brien looked like he’d been training very hard. Presuming he’s picked against the New Zealand Maori, one more forceful, all-action display to re-affirm as much in the eyes of Gatland and co will make him hard to overlook for the first test.
No less than Warburton, in the build-up to the Crusaders game O’Brien wasn’t shy about highlighting his own ability to play across the backrow. You sense the Tullow Tank has a ferocious appetite to make his mark here, and may just do so.