Seán O’Brien aiming to press his case as opportunity knocks
Grizzled veteran knows every display important in a fiercely competitive environment
Sean O’Brien: “ I get to wear the jersey this week, better make sure I do it justice and do my thing.” Photograph: Billy stickland/Inpho
Nobody knows the best Ireland XV with any certainty. Not even the coach.
“When Aki, Henshaw, Ringrose are all fit, and Chris Farrell is fit?”
Joe Schmidt retorted about his midfield conundrum. “I’ll let you know because I’m not sure myself at this stage.”
Settled sides are a rarity in modern rugby. Too many variables.
Even the All Blacks are trying to figure themselves out. For Twickenham on Saturday, Steve Hansen goes with three outhalves; Beauden Barrett at 10, Damian McKenzie at fullback and Richie Mo’unga to kick the late goals.
The Ireland coaches “ummed and ahhed” on Wednesday night but for a change they slept on final selection calls. A turned off tap cannot leak.
What we do know is nobody’s safe. Centre, backrow, lock and scrumhalf, at least until Conor Murray rolls that neck, serve overflowing pub talk.
Next Thursday Schmidt delivers the most fascinating team since parting ways with Clermont and Mario Ledesma in 2010.
The next question and answer conjures images of Aidan O’Brien’s paddock at dawn: is every player in camp looking over their shoulder now?
“Anyone runs a little bit harder when they can hear the breathing of somebody behind them,” Schmidt responded.
“I don’t want them looking around, I just want them running a bit harder so they keep that distance.”
Speaking of thoroughbreds, a sure sign of Irish readiness is Seanie O’Brien being sick to his back teeth about form and fitness queries.
“You keep saying that. You keep asking me that. I’ve to be patient, I can’t expect the same old form after being out for a year. Things move on, teams get better. I had to get back to a place where I could compete, first and foremost, at training,” said O’Brien
Numbers rarely lie but in the 31-year-old’s case they matter less.
Feed O’Brien enough tasty minutes, against Toulouse and Argentina, then put black clad opponents on the same block and witness an explosiveness only this Ireland flanker has produced.
Proof comes via stunning turns against New Zealand in November 2013 and November 2016 before a seemingly undercooked 2016/17 season, when he clocked a miserly 487 minutes in eight Leinster appearances, yet still managed to steal the show on the Lions tour of New Zealand.
“In my experiences of coaching him for eight and a half years – or for intervals in that eight and a half years – it does take a couple of games for him to get up and running,” said Schmidt. “But he is up and running. I’d be hopeful that he is going to take another step.”
Maturing opensides grow impatient. Josh van der Flier can do no more.
Dan Leavy strains at the leash this weekend.
“It’s an incredibly competitive environment,” O’Brien concurred.
“There is quality in every position now, especially the backrow. I get to wear the jersey this week, better make sure I do it justice and do my thing.”
Tadhg Beirne is this ominous blindside alternative as Peter O’Mahony tears through the form of his already wonderful career whilst the dropped Rhys Ruddock remains the naturally strongest operator and CJ Stander keeps Jack Conan out of the number eight gig.
The starting locks are James Ryan and Iain Henderson but Dev Toner, Beirne and Quinn Roux offer sustainable depth. The propping production line has never seemed so healthy with a 36-year-old hooker doubling as Ireland’s natural leader.
Fullback and centre mould into one decision. Schmidt dropped his guard ever so slightly, possibly on purpose, when stating that Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney are “highly likely to be involved next week”.
If that’s the case Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Jordan Larmour are walking a tightrope that demands “eyes front-focus” against Los Pumas.
Two of them could be discarded from next week’s 23.
“We’ll slot Robbie in and what I love about Robbie is he’ll slot himself in wherever,” added Schmidt as cold water was poured on the notion of Henshaw at fullback.
“It’s in the back of our minds as an option if we need to go there. The one thing I would say is it is not our first option.”
That would be Kearney but Larmour’s Chicago hat-trick ensures everyone hears breathing behind them.