Seán O’Brien happy to do his share of the donkey work
Flanker relishing challenge of Ireland’s Six Nations showdown with Wales in Cardiff
Seán O’Brien in action against the All Blacks: “There’s a shared workload in the backrow now.” Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Seán O’Brien is synonymous with ball-carrying and, at his best, rampaging big carries. It’s why he’s called the Tullow Tank and it’s what makes him a world-class operator.
Of course, there’s more to him than that: just think back to his strength over the ball and those three turnovers he forced against the All Blacks. But with the advent of CJ Stander to the Irish backrow and a rejuvenated Jamie Heaslip also taking more ball on, O’Brien’s hard-running game has been tempered a tad.
While there were a couple of rampaging clean breaks against Scotland, there haven’t been any in the last two games. And although carrying is his forte, O’Brien has had the least carries of the backrow trio to date, 43 as against Stander’s 69 and Heaslip’s 54.
Stander has also made the most metres, 161, with Heaslip on 141 and O’Brien on 68. It’s the same for tackles, with Heaslip on 39 (and none missed), Stander on 35 (one missed) and O’Brien on 27 (three missed), although Heaslip and O’Brien have passed and offloaded more than Stander.
However, O’Brien is quite content to assume more of the donkey work. He declares himself “pretty happy” with his own form. “I’m busy so I am, throughout the field and I’m getting through a lot of work, a lot of probably dirty work. So yea, I’m feeling pretty good,” he says.
No two games are the same and sometimes, O’Brien says, and a player simply has to adapt.
“No I don’t think there’s a different emphasis. I think if you look at the last day [against France], for instance, there was no line breaks or anything like that,” he says.
“It was a kind of a bit more attritional against the French, and you have to be always as tidy as you can be with your carries and little small things, rucks and bits and pieces towards the maul and keeping the scrum going. So it wasn’t a very open game I don’t think for us backrowers, but we had to do the donkey work.
“Sometimes you’ve got to try and win an inch, and an inch might lead to another inch a phase later so you have to put in a few of the hard yards, too.
“In an ideal world, yeah, you’d love to have a bit more space and be moving on to more ball at a rate of knots, but in the last game that wasn’t the case either, they were a big pack and were good at the breakdown. We know who we have at the breakdown this week so it will be another dogfight in that area.”
Nor do any of the bald statistics above suggest a changed role for him. “No, I don’t think so. Like obviously having CJ and Jamie, there are more people carrying so I’m probably letting them do a bit more work,” he says, smiling.
“My stats are still pretty high when it comes to carrying, but so are theirs and that’s good for us that we’re sharing that workload. I think CJ had a massive amount of carries the last day and yeah, it’s great that it’s a collective thing. I think a few years ago I might have had double the carries of the next fella, but that’s not the case now. There’s a shared workload in the backrow.”
And that’s fine and dandy by him. “Oh yea, absolutely, it’s good for the team.”
Amid the modest acknowledgment of this being Heaslip’s 100th Test match, including his five Tests for the Lions, it’s largely been overlooked that this will be O’Brien’s 50th Test, if one includes his two for the Lions.
Given the 30-year-old O’Brien is only two years younger, he would be entitled to have a degree of envy regarding Heaslip’s indestructibility when declaring: “It tells us he doesn’t get injured very often. Yeah, he’s a machine, isn’t he? He doesn’t break down, he just keeps going the same week in, week out in training. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jamie sit out a training session. He’s either completely broke for a week or he’s not.
“But yeah, he’s an incredible professional. He doesn’t leave any stone unturned and he’s someone for us all to look at and see what way he lives his life. He’s unbelievable. I think he’s got a bit of slack in the past but the amount of work he does around the field, it speaks for itself.”
A Welsh backrow featuring Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, who will be playing his 50th Test for Wales, provide familiar foes, as well as another Lions audition, albeit that will be the last item on any of their minds come kick-off.
“No, you don’t think Lions. I’ve played against them a whole lot already and obviously we want to try and win that battle. Tipuric has always been a very consistent player. He’s a very good footballer,” O’Brien says.
“Warburton, I don’t think he’s played that much for Cardiff this season but he’s a class operator too. He’s very hard to move when he gets over the ball. He’s a good carrier as well; it’s an element of his game he’s probably after improving a lot on. So they’re two major dangers.”
On Ireland’s last visit to the Principality Stadium, O’Brien was forced to watch the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina from the stands due to a one-match suspension for taking a swipe at Pascal Papé.
“It was massive, a massive pain because I felt we were missing enough lads through injury and I was sitting in the stand fit, but that’s just the way it worked out.I think if we had had one or two more lads on the field that day, it might have been a bit different. But that’s the way it went. I got punished for what I did.”
Asked to recall the night, O’Brien is not of a mind to do so, having addressed this unhappy memory before. “Well, sure, that’s the way it went at the time, it’s a long time ago now so it’s a different kettle of fish this time,” he says.
Moving back to the Wales game, O’Brien’s sense of anticipation is palpable.
“I’m definitely excited about it. As I said, it will be a great atmosphere and they’re great rugby people, the Welsh, there’s a lot of Irish travelling over. So it will be an incredible atmosphere, I reckon,” he says.
“I definitely think Cardiff is one of the best places to play to play in the world.”