Sean O’Brien fully locked and loaded for All Blacks decider

Ireland and Lions backrow: ‘This is the biggest game I’ve ever been involved in’

At last we have seen Sean O’Brien fully fit and at full tilt. With that has come his first win over the All Blacks in seven attempts and now a crack at a landmark series win in New Zealand with the Lions. Win on Saturday morning and, finally, his status as one of the greats of Irish rugby would be secured.

He fully appreciates the prize at stake going into the decisive third test against the All Blacks at Eden Park, although he wouldn't see it in such personal terms, nor does he reckon will any of his teammates.

“I don’t think players genuinely think about that kind of stuff until it happens. That’s down the line, you know? We’re here to play rugby and to do what we can for each other. All the external things can sit and wait until we’re finished the job. We don’t engage in it in terms of we don’t discuss it.

“I’d be lying if I said I don’t look back on the Lions’ history and see legends of the game who are still in the spotlight because of what they’ve done years ago. That’s part and parcel of it. But as a player, when you’re involved in it right now, I don’t think you look at that stuff often. You’re aware of what’s gone on before you and what they’ve done.”


He's aware that the only series win by the Lions in 11 attempts in New Zealand was back in 1971, which helped secure legendary status for Willie John McBride, Seanie Lynch, Mike Gibson and in particular a stream of iconic Welsh players from a golden era for the Red Dragonhood.

“Yeah, obviously you are, but for us we’ll think about that when we’re 50 or 60-years-of-age sitting having a pint somewhere. They’ll be nice things at that stage of your life, but not right now. We just want to go out and perform, win and see where that leaves us.”

His own Irish and Lions heroes are of more recent vintage; teammates, indeed, such as Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll from four years ago. “Being in the same changing room as those boys, four years ago, and listening to Paulie speak and Brian speak, it means something special to them.”

O'Brien has played 49 tests for Ireland and four for the Lions. He's been part of a Lions test series win, been part of an Irish Six Nations winning team and three European Cup winning squads with Leinster. So how does this rate?

“The biggest,” he says with a steely-eyed intent. “This is the biggest game I’ve ever been involved in, I think, this weekend.”

This is also coming from one of those who played in the winning series four years ago. “It’s definitely bigger I think. Sydney was special, any time you win a series is special but to come here and win one is the ultimate, especially with the schedule we’ve had and the opposition we’re facing, how good they are. That’s what it’s all about.”

No-one did more to help complete the comeback win in last week's second test than O'Brien. As the tourists' scrum coach Graham Rowntree admitted during the week, the Tullow Tank is the barometer of the team's energy and physicality.

O’Brien arrived here not having played a game since the European Champions Cup quarter-final win over Wasps on April 1st, and with significant concerns about his fitness. But Warren Gatland knew from the Lions winning tour four years ago in Australia how important he could be.

The Leinster and Irish flanker had used his six week lay-off with a niggling hamstring strain to optimum effect. At 30 years of age, he knew this was likely to be one of the biggest goals of his career, and he prepared accordingly.

“A massive amount of work has gone into it and a couple of the six weeks I had before the tour probably stood to me. I did an awful amount of work and conditioning and fitness and strengthening and everything in that time. I feel very good. I feel very fast and strong.”

Going into a hearing you are a bit nervous because you don't know what you are going to get

Pressed further on this, O’Brien added: “I did every single thing I could possibly do, I think, in those six weeks. I looked after myself incredibly well, probably the best I’ve ever looked after myself.”

He’s also been a key team leader, and can be heard over the referee’s mike forever cajoling and advising teammates. “It’s probably a natural thing for me at this stage. Once I’m fit, I’m like that. I enjoy that side of things as well. I enjoy keeping lads going. I enjoy giving lads good messages and making sure people are clear as well.”

Hence, had he been ruled out of this decider it would have been such a blow to the Lions. Last Sunday must have been one of the most anxious days of his life, akin to the day he was suspended from the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina two years ago for punching Pascal Pape, the French hardman who went out of his way to make sure O'Brien was suspended.

Thankfully for O'Brien and the Lions, his extended stay in Wellington last Sunday ended with the citing against him in the first test for striking Waisake Naholo eventually being dismissed close to midnight after a near four-hour hearing.

“Looking back at it (the citing), it was fairly innocuous and I would have been very surprised if I had received a ban for something like that. But I went through the process and got the result.

“In my own head, the legalities of the whole thing and the ins and outs of it with the barristers and all that crack, that is what they are doing, but for me I knew there was no intent involved in it. I knew I didn’t do it on purpose so I was happy in my own skin knowing that. But obviously going into a hearing you are a bit nervous because you don’t know what you are going to get and you don’t know how they are going to react to something like that. But at the end of the day, the result was the right thing.”

Being asked to compare this with the same process in 2015 at the World Cup drew a hearty laugh. “Ha! Sitting for nine hours in a room at the World Cup? It was pretty intense, all right, but it was a different scenario this time around. World Cup, I knew I’d done wrong, I admitted to that so I had to take my medicine. This time around it was a different story.”

O’Brien missed out on Ireland’s win over the All Blacks, but was there for the vengeful and spiteful rematch which followed two weeks later when Ireland went down despite a wondrous performance by the flanker himself.

Rory Best addressed the Lions squad this week and admitted that the most pertinent lesson from that day was that Ireland had not matched the All Blacks' physicality.

“We all know what’s coming,” said O’Brien of the tour finale. “They’ll be a bit hurt after last weekend but it’s something you embrace and you go again, isn’t it? So that’s what we’re here to do, we’re here for a challenge and we’re going to get it this weekend and it’s about how we react to it and hopefully we react a lot better to some of the stuff that we put ourselves under in terms of last weekend and keep our heads and play some nice rugby.”

The Lions were on the rebound from a defeat in the first test last week, not so this week, yet aside from the prize at stake, O’Brien believes the tourists have plenty of room for improvement.

“When you look back at the game at the weekend there’s so much more in us. If he (Beauden Barrett) kicks another few goals, we’re in trouble. You have to be honest as well with how the game panned out, our discipline and a few bits and pieces like that. We have to be better this week and that’s a challenge to the group.”

O’Brien’s energy and classic openside support trailer helped to complete the try of the tour in the first test, but he again laughs off questions as to whether he has watched re-runs of it.

The boys did all the hard work I think, I just had to run

“No, I haven’t, to be honest. I’ve seen it, obviously, reviewing my own stuff. Sometimes you mightn’t be in that position again and it just so happened I trailed two boys and got on the end of it.”

As to whether people will still be watching that try in 50 years time, he smiles again and puts in perspective. “Maybe they’ll do that and maybe they won’t either; it depends how this weekend goes. It’s obviously nice to get one but the boys did all the hard work I think, I just had to run.”

Winning the series on top of the wonder try would be some collection to take home, but there’s little doubt where his priorities lie.

“Yeah, it would be wonderful but I’ll be honest, winning the series is what we’re all here for and that would be something special.”

Something special alright.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times