RWC 15: Frontman Seán O’Brien ready for a second crack
Second time around, no-frills flanker wants to make the most of the World Cup
Seán O’Brien wants to make the most of his second Rugby World Cup campaign. Photograph: Inpho
Seán O’Brien is one of the 14 survivors from the last World Cup. Given that he was such a weapon in that tournament – Shaun Edwards and Wales deducing that if you stopped O’Brien and Stephen Ferris in their tracks, you stopped Ireland – it’s almost surprising to remind yourself that O’Brien went to New Zealand with just 11 caps to his name.
He had broken his leg during the Six Nations break the previous season, but reckons the experience will stand to him this time around.
“It was a very memorable World Cup, very enjoyable and very good. We played some nice rugby, but probably didn’t have a plan B,” O’Brien says, echoing the thoughts of so many teammates who suffered that quarter-final defeat in Wellington. And plan A was him and Ferris.
“You need to have a few different plans going over there. You have to be able to adapt very quickly in games because you don’t get a second chance in a World Cup. The lads who were there would have learned a lot from that in terms of the way we ‘prep’ now, which is way different. We’ve also a way different squad, and we probably didn’t have that four years ago. We had a starting 15, and no disrespect to anyone on the bench, but it’s come on a long way since then. We probably have two teams now who can play a game at any stage.”
Ferris, such an important figure in that 2011 World Cup, has since been forced to retire before his 29th birthday due to a recurring ankle injury.
“He was a massive player for us, and a good friend as well,” says O’Brien. “It was very disappointing, the way things worked out for him, but he’s getting on with life and he’s keeping his head up.”
It reminds O’Brien, who’s had his own injury woes, how fortunate he is. “You know it can be over very quickly. That’s why you want to take these opportunities; that’s why you want to win everything you can win when you have the opportunity.”
“It’ll be a week-by-week thing over there, but certainly we’re in a way better place in terms of a bigger squad, in terms of better rugby, the coaching staff.
“The whole set-up is way different and improved. Yeah, things are positive.”
There’s a no-frills, no-nonsense attitude about O’Brien which tallies with the way he plays. Reared in a winning Leinster culture, this is a driven player, voracious in his appetite to achieve anything that’s possible.
Four years on, O’Brien is also a different player, now aged 28 and with 35 caps to his name. “I’m a lot more experienced, and I’ve more of a leadership role in the squad. You feel a bit more responsibility to make sure you’re on the button and to lead as best you can; little words of encouragement here and there to some of the younger lads. Little bits and pieces like that. If I’ve my own job sorted, I can go out and play, and people can row in behind you then.”
This was underlined by Joe Schmidt’s decision to hand O’Brien the captaincy for the win over Scotland. “It was a very, very proud day. I was delighted to be asked. It was something I’ve always wanted to do, and it was nice to get that; an added bonus to the day.
“A good few of my family was there. My Mam [Kaye] wasn’t there. She hasn’t really come to a game ever. She’s not allowed,” he says, chuckling. “She went to the under-18 final for Tullow, and we lost, so I said: ‘You’re not coming again.’ She can’t really look at it anyway. She goes in and out of the room. Too nervous.
“My eldest sister [Caroline], who would probably be one of my biggest supporters – she used to run us around a lot when we were younger – she had done her cruciate playing football. So she wasn’t there either. There were a few missing, but it was nice to have the few there who were.”
O’Brien has eased off his coaching in Tullow, and a little mentoring to the Carlow GAA team, and will confine himself to occasional sessions in Tullow with the women’s team his younger sister Alex plays for, after the World Cup.
“I don’t want to be doing all that driving now when I can be doing something else, whether it be getting into the sea for a dip or just chilling on the couch,” he says. “At least you’re not on your feet. That’s been my professionalism over the last two years, which I definitely think has improved a lot. When I was younger I probably thought: ‘This is grand. I’m fresh.’ I don’t like sitting around and doing nothing. It’s just not in my nature, but at the end of the day you have to be in the right place physically to play. That’s a priority.”
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“It’s going well for us. We’re very pleased,” he says. “I’ve pulled a few pints in there, mainly for myself rather than anyone else! But it’s been very good for the last year and we’re looking forward to what lies ahead.”
That’s in part looking after his future. All things being equal, there is still plenty of rugby left in him. “There’s a lot to achieve, loads of things and loads of trophies, hopefully, to win still, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Indeed, ultimately it’s all about the silverware. Although it was a barren season with Leinster, he has no regrets about not going to Toulon, which at one point in his protracted negotiations with the IRFU apparently looked probable.
“I could have gone, but I didn’t want to go,” he says. “Leinster is where I learned my trade. I’ve been there since I was 18 and we’ve built something up over the past six, seven, years and I want us to get back to that. Last season was very disappointing for us, but it’s about rebuilding now and the structures we have in place. With Leo being there as [head] coach, things are a lot better already, I think.”
O’Brien watched France’s two warm-up games against England and agrees that they are “a different animal” come World Cup time. “We’re under no illusions what threat they pose, how good they can be on any given day, and the quality of players they have. Even the squad they’ve picked – he [Philippe Saint-André] has gone for players who he knows can produce the goods on a big day.”
One of the abiding memories of the last World Cup in New Zealand was the extent to which the Blarney Army swelled in number, in line with the rising expectations around the Irish squad.
“Even getting off the plane on the first day over there, with the amount of Irish jerseys, it hit home with a lot of lads. ‘Jeez, the amount of support we have over here.’ With it being so close to home now, I can’t wait to hopefully see that again, and even more maybe,” O’Brien says.
“That’s an exciting part of it as well, to give back something to the fans. They put in a lot of effort to get over and support us, year in and year out. So we want to give them something to shout about.”
This looks like being the most open World Cup ever. There are, realistically, up to seven countries who could ultimately win the whole thing.
“It’s going to be a cracker of a World Cup, I’d say,” says O’Brien. “Every team, when you get to a World Cup, no matter who you are, will put their best foot forward. I’m sure some of the smaller guns are going to fire a shot or two as well.
“In a World Cup, it’s different gravy. People are way more excited about it, and anything can happen.
“So we’ll see where are at the end of the day.”