Gerry Thornley: Seán O’Brien to show why All Blacks respect him so much
Ireland have backrow riches in abundance but the Leinster man is truly world class
Seán O’Brien brings a rare amalgam of power and pace into the backrow. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
For all the fear of an All Blacks backlash in the fallout of poking the bear in Chicago, it’s worth noting that Ireland are in a pretty good place themselves. All told, 37 players were used in the wins over New Zealand and Canada, with a total of nine new players blooded at Test level, which must make for some pretty positive mood music in the confines of the squad’s Carton House base.
In advance of an eagerly anticipated Saturday tea-time sell-out at the Aviva Stadium for the visit of the back-to-back World champions and runaway winners of the Rugby Championship, the squad has suffered only one injury, a relatively light toll these days, albeit resulting in a nine-month absence for the desperately unfortunate Jordi Murphy.
In his absence, the permutations and possibilities within the ever-competitive backrow area are as abundant as ever. In addition to the other two starters in the backrow in Solder Field, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip, Josh van der Flier was the team’s leading tackler after being introduced for Murphy in the 34th minute.
Whereupon Peter O’Mahony and Seán O’Brien, two fairly automatic choices in recent years when fit and healthy, and part of the first-choice backrow either side of Heaslip at the World Cup, completed another step toward full match fitness against Canada.
On top of this, Jack O’Donoghue’s performance confirmed the feeling that he has the athleticism and ball skills to play at Test level. Joe Schmidt is clearly a big fan, and also talked about the performance of the talented Dan Leavy, who is having his breakthrough season. Accordingly, they have also been retained in the squad this week, although clearly they are in an extensive queue.
O’Mahony is a couple of games further back on the road to full match fitness, and it showed in the way he grew into last Saturday’s game, although it was perhaps more significant, with next Saturday in mind, that O’Brien was removed for the final quarter. Why else remove a player from a game already safely won who is not going to be involved against the All Blacks?
That Ireland could beat the All Blacks without two such proven Test animals was a statement in itself, as Schmidt declared his trust in Stander, Murphy and van der Flier by opting for his fittest starting team and squad.
Last Saturday constituted O’Mahony’s first Test since he ruptured knee ligaments in the decisive World Cup pool win over France in Cardiff in October last year. It was O’Brien’s first cap since suffering the costly hamstring injury which forced him off 20 minutes into Ireland’s 10-9 defeat to France in Paris last February.
O’Mahony would have won more than his 36 caps but for injuries, and the same most assuredly applies to O’Brien, who has accumulated 43 caps in the seven seasons since making his debut against Fiji in November 2009.
On his day, O’Brien remains a truly world-class player, a Lions Test starter whose explosive ball-carrying in particular, breakdown work and defence would be an asset to any team. He has only shown glimpses of his true capabilities since returning from those protracted hamstring problems.
Very much a leader from the front, O’Brien was a strong candidate to take over the Irish captaincy on a permanent basis following Paul O’Connell’s retirement. In the event, Schmidt was entirely vindicated in choosing Rory Best, not least because the Ulster hooker is almost as durable and indestructible as Heaslip, whereas injuries have limited O’Brien to just 13 starts so far in the last four seasons.
He played in each of Ireland’s first three games under Schmidt in November 2013, culminating in the heartbreaking 24-22 defeat to the All Blacks at the Aviva, but shoulder injuries ruled him out of the Six Nations, summer tour and November window in 2014, delaying his return until the 2014 Six Nations.
Nevertheless, the memory of his outstanding performance that November day against the All Blacks ought to count for something this week. It’s rare to hear an All Black player name-check an Irish opponent or reveal he’d been keeping an eye on one at provincial level, but following O’Brien’s omission from the 27-man squad which travelled to Chicago, All Black flanker Jerome Kaino was genuinely surprised rather than indulging in any gamesmanship.
“He’s had a few consecutive games with Leinster and and was looking pretty good,” he said. “When you look at 2013 when we just beat them, O’Brien was the spearhead of their physicality and their contesting at the breakdown.”
Aside from his ball-carrying, which saw him make one of only three Irish line-breaks that day as well as one of their five offloads, O’Brien also made a phenomenal 16 tackles. Granted, there were the concessions of penalties, as there were last Saturday, although this goes with the territory of being an openside.
But that the All Blacks would have such evident respect for one of Ireland’s players reflects the threat he can pose, and that respect, allied to the memory of his performance in November 2013, will surely count in his favour with Schmidt and Simon Easterby as well.
There was also enough in his performance last Saturday, notably that typically barnstorming first-half break and offload, to remind all of O’Brien’s rare amalgam of power and pace in a backrower.
Were it not for injuries, he might now be in the same bracket as Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, and still only 29, he might yet get there.