Latest injury threatens Seán O’Brien’s thunderous legacy

Joe Schmidt confirms flanker’s broken arm is unrelated to litany of previous problems

"He's a stubborn man," says Joe Schmidt admiringly. To get to the point where such words seem appropriate seems no place to be. Headstrong. Unshakable. Obdurate. Seán O'Brien needs them all to line up.

In Schmidt’s voice there is a disappointed, sympathetic tone but his defiance after beating Argentina seemed also a direct communication to his openside flanker, who will again face another excruciating stretch away from the Irish team.

“He is devastated,” added Schmidt. “His right arm is broken so obviously he won’t be available for the rest of the Guinness Series.”

In O’Brien’s rugby world devastation has become a doleful backdrop. After almost a year of inching his way towards fitness and health he cut a forlorn figure. The Lions flanker being led away. Head down his arm wrapped in his Irish shirt. Each frame a distressing metaphor for the cruelty to which he has been recently exposed.

O’Brien missed Ireland’s historic win against the All Blacks in Chicago two years ago. He will miss this week’s match with New Zealand and Leinster’s second round of European Cup rugby.

His regime for the coming months is as much to harden the mind for another return in the New Year with the Six Nations a readjusted target. The confidence that seeps away and the self doubt that grows as a companion to injury, those too will need tending.

There were few places anyone could find a positive thread but from the slim pickings Schmidt did. That O’Brien’s broken arm was not a reoccurrence of an older injury give s hope to a straightforward if lengthy recovery.

There are no historical issues to deal with. It was not the already mended shoulder. There was no talk of an existential threat to his career. Small mercies. Rarely has a broken arm been hailed a result.

“Seán has probably been a bit of a thorn in the side for the All Blacks as far as his performances against them go. He was unbelievable here in 2013. I thought he was ferocious. And obviously for the Lions as well,” said Schmidt.

“He hasn’t had that many opportunities to play. He didn’t play in Chicago so as I said I’m gutted for him. He’s gutted for himself that he won’t get that opportunity.

“This is an injury utterly unrelated to any other injury he’s had. It’s purely a freak accident just with a hard head that got dropped and an attempt to carry through him and it caught his arm. That’s incredibly disappointing for him.”

This season O'Brien has played five times for Leinster, three of those from the bench. Last season he played six matches, the season before eight matches and before that six. His legacy has become one of surgical procedures, recovery and back to uncompromising rugby. His nickname 'The Tullow Tank' follows him and with it the inevitability of risk. He will always be that.

In April Leinster confirmed O’Brien’s shoulder injury would rule him out for the rest of the season and announced that he had more surgery. That came after he endured a second unsuccessful comeback from the injury earlier that month against the Scarlets on March 9th in his miserable run.

The 31-year-old also missed the Six Nations, the shoulder coming after a hip injury forced him into three months rehab and surgery last year.

"Yeah, look I think when you have an injury backing up another injury just after you get back, it's very frustrating," said Irish lock Iain Henderson. "I know he has worked so hard over the last number of months and he's had a tough time at it ensuring that he could come back firing.

“I think for him, what he can take from it, it’s not a re-injury of his old injury. It’s a completely separate injury and Seanie has been about the game long enough to understand that injuries happen.

“Yes, it is mightily frustrating for him. Look he’ll pick himself up, probably get reviewed during the week to see what the prognosis is and we probably expect to see him back over the next number of months.”

O’Brien, who will be 32-years-old in February, knows absence changes everything . Hard bitten players respect his ability too much to be anything but ruthless about exploiting his unavailability. Schmidt expects it.

"I don't know if you remember the last time we played the All Blacks here Josh Van der Flier had a phenomenal entry to the game," says the Irish coach already computing life without O'Brien and the arrival of the All Blacks.

“He had two searing line breaks and really impressed. I know that’s two years ago now and it’s all about the current context and what people can deliver in the next seven days.

“But it all feeds into a melting pot that we can have a look at and make some decisions on the back of. It’s nice to have that backup. But I would reiterate that I would feel very disappointed for Sean.”

Henderson too sees promise around the backrow players. Nobody denies the depth.

“Seanie brings a massive physical edge, a ball carrying edge and a defensive edge. The breakdown threat he poses to other teams is massive.” adds the Irish lock.

"But equally boys like Dan Leavy, Josh Van der Flier, Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock are top quality players."

An wretched year and a threatened legacy. O’Brien can’t go on, he’ll go on.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times