O’Brien not the force of old but a final surge needed in Japan

Josh van der Flier, for all his blooming talent, is no groundhog. Not of O’Brien’s ilk

Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan with Scotland’s Simon Berghan at  Murrayfield. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan with Scotland’s Simon Berghan at Murrayfield. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

This was not the Seán O’Brien for the ages. The old dominance worryingly amiss, maybe lost, his body repeatedly betraying an iron will down the years.

Keep the faith: 49 minutes on the clock, two-point game, Flower of Scotland reverberates, and Josh Strauss lines up Joey Carbery.

Along came Seánie, farmer’s over the South African. Immovable, Romain Poite awards Ireland the scrum. Greg Laidlaw protests as O’Brien tears the ball from the Scottish captain’s grasp.

“Eh, eh, calm down,” Poite commands.

Seán O’Brien is perfectly calm. Seán O’Brien is alive and well.

The juices flowing now; Cian Healy playing scrumhalf to O’Brien’s awful outhalf impression, shovelling it out the back for Joey Carbery’s magic feet to sign and seal the ball game.

This once-in-a-generation flanker, fierce and powerful but in the same breath brittle and injury-ravaged. Born on Leinster soil, he’s leaving home after so many years, off to London Irish on a three-year exit strategy.

The end is near.

Late withdrawals have been a sad reality as the career of a man who turns 32 on St Valentine’s Day lurched from ligament tear to broken bone. Some fretted as a fully togged Rhys Ruddock followed Josh van der Flier out at Murrayfield. O’Brien finally cantered out, head shaven and cast covering the latest injury.

The IRFU seem to believe Ireland’s greatest ever openside no longer represents good business on a national contract. Perhaps the union were keen to shift his last few wage packets onto the provincial budget. That promised a huge drop in salary post-World Cup 2019, especially considering the heir apparent Dan Leavy and the other talented back rows such as Scott Penny coming through the system need paying.

Declan Kidney and London Irish reportedly put €1.2 million on the table for three seasons in Brentford.

Lament

So these final moments become a lament. An Irish legend’s last roll on the global stage. If he makes Japan. The odds are against him, always.

“A fit Seanie is always close to the team,” said Joe Schmidt recently.

He struggled from ruck to collision here, holding his own with a performance that would earn praise on a Premiership afternoon, presuming Sam Underhill and Bath weren’t the opposition. The numbers stacked high – 16 carries and 13 tackles, one missed when he slipped off hooker Stuart McInally.

Impressive for a run of the mill backrow, a poor showing by Seán O’Brien.

Dig into this performance, watch his lack of impact and forgive the man who in Schmidt’s mind deserves the opportunity to “work his way back in”. He has 319 minutes for Leinster in six games this season. He missed the joy of 2018 after more surgery.

The last feats of greatness were in Lions’ red two seasons ago. Ireland have not witnessed his bullocking charges or unbreakable latch on the All Blacks ball since the encounter in 2016. Only a fool would scratch his name out. Josh van der Flier, for all his blooming talent, is no groundhog. Not of O’Brien’s ilk.

Leavy has had both concussion and neck problems, and currently nurses a calf issue after a wondrous breakthrough campaign. That felt like a passing of the torch. But here we are.

O’Brien will avoid the exile from Schmidt’s squad that Simon Zebo suffered in October 2017 (when news broke of his deal with Racing 92). He’s needed to beat the Springboks. Zebo is not.

But after this Edinburgh show more evidence is required. When asked to appraise O’Brien’s performance Schmidt did not address the question’s true meaning. “There are a lot of guys on their way back and there are a lot of guys changing. . .”

The Ireland coach spoke about Chris Farrell, Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane. The O’Brien question was repeated.

Great pressure

“I actually thought Seán grew into the game. He got a turnover at one stage that was decided as a scrum. I thought he got some great pressure on the ball. I thought Bundee Aki . . .”

Schmidt did come back. “Those are the things Seán brings for us, he gets great pressure on the ball. On another day he might have got a couple of turnovers.”

His effort was unquestioned as Scotland pounded the Ireland line over 25 phases before half time, but his timing remains a fraction off. He was not among the dominant carriers or tacklers. He never looked himself. He went looking for Finn Russell, twice getting his hands on the Scottish play-maker after the ball was gone. “Just a push,” said Poite.

On 24 minutes he built up a head of steam, only to be drilled backwards. Squeezed from the contest until Strauss targeted Carbery, he seized the moment.

The ultimate tests have always produced his finest moments. This was not one of them. If the hips hold up the old dominance should reappear. This year might not end well without him.

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