Seán O’Brien back and ready to bring his X-factor to the Lions
‘I’ll just go for as long as I can when I get out there, the lungs will be burning I’m sure’
Seán O’Brien during Lions training ahead of their clash with the Crusaders. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Seán O’Brien is back and not a moment too soon. Entering their third game of the tour against the all-conquering Crusaders, the Lions could benefit from a barnstorming, restorative and trademark all-action O’Brien performance as much as the player himself.
This may be viewed slightly through green-tinged glasses but there would be nothing better than the sight of a vintage O’Brien bashing through a few Crusaders, making a few line breaks or two, with a couple of big hits and turnovers thrown in. He’s a player that stats can measure. O’Brien has X-factor. He comes up with big plays in big games, often at big moments.
More than anything perhaps, you also wish him an injury free outing, whether it be for an hour or more. O’Brien hasn’t played since Leinster’s European Champions Cup quarter-final win over Wasps due to a calf problem. That was on April 1st, and Leinster missed him at the business end of the season as much he assuredly missed it.
O’Brien only returned to full training on Tuesday, but he’s back for his second Lions tour. Four years ago, he was a 26-year-old with 27 caps, 24 of those being Test starts which he had accumulated in the previous three seasons. In the injury troubled intervening four seasons there have only been another 22 caps, leaving him on 49 for his country.
Granted, having been overlooked for the match-day 23 in the first Test, O’Brien was named on the bench in the second and replaced Jamie Heaslip for the final quarter, before starting at openside in place of the injured Sam Warburton in the decisive third Test.
So technically he has played 51 Tests, if still one shy of 50 for Ireland. Yet such is his ability that he’d assuredly have won almost twice that but for injuries.
In any event, at 30, not only is this one of the ultimate challenges of his, or any other Lion’s career, but were he to stay fit and strong, O’Brien ought to be at the peak of his considerable powers. In other words, this tour could be one of the benchmarks of his career.
This being his second Lions tour, familiarity should help.
“Yeah, definitely, yeah. I suppose I’ve grown up a lot in the last four years as well probably, and I’m a lot more experienced. I was probably one of the younger guys back then, and I’m one of the older guys on this tour but that’s good. It’s something that I embrace and I enjoy that whole aspect of it.”
Maybe we’re asking too much of him, today especially. Maybe he’s not quite the same explosive player as four years ago, but he believes he’s a better one.
“Yeah, I think definitely a smarter player anyway. I’ve added a few more strings to my bow I think, and it’s just about getting some consistency now and a few games under my belt to get up and running.”
Encouragingly, he has traditionally played well against the All Blacks, and soon after returning from injuries. Such was the case last November when, after missing the Chicago game, he returned against Canada a week later and, with that game under his belt, then had a huge 80 minutes in the rematch with the vengeful All Blacks.
So he certainly has every motivation.
“It’s a huge honour,” he says of being a Lion again. “Something I’m very proud of, and a special bunch of people to be involved with. It’s a very strong squad and I’m delighted to be here.”
He’s also fairly sure he’ll have enough time to state his case.
“Absolutely, you need one if not two games to get match-fit. I’ve trained incredibly hard over the last six weeks and I feel great. I just want to play now. These games are that bit quicker, so that will stand to me too.”
That he and others are facing the form side in New Zealand, and thus a game billed as the fourth Test, may be more demanding but also affords O’Brien and those starting a greater opportunity to press their test credentials.
“It’s not a hindrance anyway,” he says. “It’s something I’m looking forward to. It’s going to be a very tough game against one of the best sides in New Zealand – the best side at the minute. You embrace that, you look forward to the battle and I’ll just go for as long as I can when I get out there. The lungs will be burning at some stage, I presume.”
O’Brien’s candidature is given added import because of the ongoing concerns over Lions tour captain Warburton, who has been unable to train fully this week due to an ankle injury, albeit forwards coach Graham Rowntree maintained there is “no grave concern” over the Welshman, and maintained he would play again before the first test.
Not that O’Brien sees this as a potential opening.
“No, I’m not thinking like that. Any opportunity I’m given I’m going to do what I can do. I’m not going to be banking on Sam being injured or not, I’m going to try and play my game and hopefully that’s good enough to be selected.”
O’Brien, with a smile and a glint in his eye, batted away the suggestion that he is competing directly with the Lions captain for a starting spot by maintaining he has three positions to play for across the back row. “No. I’m happy enough across all three if needs be.”
“Funny he should say that, isn’t it?” ventured Rowntree with a laugh. “He’s not played a lot of rugby coming into the tour but he’s trained exceptionally well in the last week. He’s class and a proven performer as we saw in the last tour. He brings many attributes to the game on both sides of the ball. I like his energy in the group, he’s impressive and I’m looking forward to seeing him tomorrow in the group.”
He’s not alone.