Jimmy O'Brien would have had many familiar faces greet him when he linked up with the Ireland squad for the first time. There are, after all, 16 other Leinster players who journeyed up to camp last Monday evening.
O’Brien is also the latest member of the 2016 Under-20 World Cup squad, they of beating New Zealand’s Baby Blacks fame, to make the transition to the senior set-up. James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale, Hugo Keenan, Andrew Porter, Max Deegan, Will Connors and Shane Daly have all been capped from that group.
More familiar faces aren't too far away in O'Brien's native Eadestown, the Kildare town only 40 minutes down the road from Ireland's gathering in Carton House. He's not the only one close to home. If tales of the parish are what O'Brien is after, he can always chat to Tadhg Beirne.
Age and a provincial barrier separate the Munster forward and Leinster’s O’Brien, but there was a time when the two men from Eadestown lined out for the underage football sides of the same local GAA club.
Beirne is five years O’Brien’s senior, so they wouldn’t have played on the same panel, though perhaps a senior debut is a possibility after their rugby-playing days. Both players stopped at minor level when provincial academy contracts were on the line, but the club is more than willing to welcome them back one day given the talent they showed as juniors.
Let's not forget that Rowan Osborne, the Munster scrumhalf, was also a gifted footballer on the same age-group panel as O'Brien.
“If we had those three lads on our senior team it would make a big difference” says Eadestown’s club secretary, Willie Casey, who also coaches in the youth system.
He’s not joking. The prevailing sense in the club is that had these three now professional rugby players not excelled in the Leinster schools system – O’Brien at Newbridge, Beirne and Osborne at Clongowes – there was a stellar senior GAA career with the club waiting for them. Who knows, maybe Kildare would have come calling too.
“We knew early that they were gifted with rugby” says Casey. “Rugby is a big sport in our club as well. It was hard to get them sometimes. They’re nearly professional the way they train in some of the schools. It’s hard to get these lads but we knew early on that they were very gifted. We would never stop them, we were always happy to get a lad when we could get him.”
It’s been years since any of the three picked up a football for Eadestown, but their talent clearly left an impression. It becomes clear that their early GAA days had a significant influence on their rugby futures.
O’Brien is known for positional versatility across the Leinster backline given he has played fullback, wing and centre; Beirne is one of the more skilled forwards on the ball at Andy Farrell’s disposal while, unsurprisingly for a scrumhalf, speed and passing were always Osborne’s talents.
“Rowan was on the same teams as Jimmy” Casey explains. “He was a very skilful GAA player as well, but he was up in college in Dublin and playing rugby there. His brother Ben won an intermediate [championship] with us in 2014. Rowan would have been on that team but he was involved with Leinster and getting run-outs with them at the time.
“Tadhg would have been a similar story, obviously taller. Very gifted, great hands. He may have played one or two matches with the senior team but that was the time he was pushing his luck with Leinster and then he went off to Wales.
“He had great hands and was a very nice fella. I do always wonder how these lads are so normal. Some lads are so gifted, become professional and they might get a bit cocky but these lads are very down to earth. Maybe it’s the way they’re coached now.
“Jimmy was a midfielder on the team, our main player and he had unbelievable skill, great hands; probably was our top scorer in every game. We could have played him anywhere, we moved him in different positions during matches but he was equally as good in every position.
“He was unbelievable. Even for throw-ins, at the start of every match we would have put him in at full-forward. We had this thing where if we caught the ball [the call was] to launch it in first time, any way at all. It didn’t work every time but he got two or three goals from the five or six matches he played that year just from doing that. He wasn’t exactly the tallest full-forward we had but he was able to adapt, able to jump high and actually win it. I think it was because he was so good athletically that he was able to jump into the air so high.
“He was always able to do everything himself, win the ball, take lads on. He had the speed and the scoring ability. That’s the other thing, there are lots of lads in every county who have great athletic ability but he actually was able to get scores too. He was getting goals and points. He was two-footed, his left foot wasn’t as cultured as it is now, with the professional training he’s improved that big time.
“He was developed perfectly, a great athlete and all that sort of stuff, but when you see some of the guys he’s tackling in rugby . . . you’d be wondering how is he doing it? Obviously it’s technique.
“He’s a nice lad with it too. I’d meet him an odd time around Christmas, he might even be down at the pitch watching matches. If you didn’t tell someone who he was I don’t think people would know he’s a professional athlete. They know who he is now of course.”
A GAA man who is good in the air and seemingly made for playing fullback, there’s a Leinster and Ireland legend in Louth who has that path well trodden. If O’Brien enjoys half the success Rob Kearney did, there will be plenty of happy onlookers, from the Aviva all the way down to the Eadestown clubhouse.
Speaking of which, given the success of the club’s former players, there must be quite a jersey collection up on a wall somewhere by now?
“We’re very into our rugby around the area so I’d say they wouldn’t be let up on the wall, someone would take them!” jokes Casey. “We don’t take advantage of them, we like to see lads doing well and maybe when they’re finished they’ll come back and play a few matches for us.”
Sunday's Italy clash in the Six Nations has come too soon for latest squad member O'Brien to make his debut, so he'll have to wait a while yet to double Ireland's Eadestown representation with Beirne. Osborne is further down the pecking order, so perhaps it is unlikely we'll see the trio ever line out together in green.
They might just have to wait to do so one day in the blue of Eadestown.