Gerry Thornley: O’Brien denied third World Cup experience
Another hip operation set to bring down the curtain on the flanker’s international career
Leinster’s Sean O’Brien with the Guinness Pro14 trophy after the final victory over Glasgow Warriors at Celtic Park, Glasgow. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Confirmation that Seán O’Brien will miss the World Cup due to another hip operation which will sideline him for six months almost certainly brings down the curtain on the international career of one of the great Irish rugby players of the professional era.
The Tullow Tank merits being mentioned in the same breath as Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. The records will also show he was a truly exceptional, two-time Lion, although but for his catalogue of injuries he’d have won way more than 56 caps for his country.
He also cruelly missed out on the Grand Slam of 2018, and the two Irish wins over New Zealand, although he played a key role in the 2015 Six Nations triumph. In 126 appearances for Leinster, O’Brien was an emerging squad member of the 2009 Heineken Cup triumph and a key part of the wins in 2011 (when European Player of the Year) and 2012.
“Properly world-class,” as O’Driscoll once described him. Alas, unlike O’Driscoll but akin to O’Connell, the 32-year-old O’Brien did not get to write the perfect finale. Outstanding at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, his latest setback has cruelly denied him a cherished third opportunity in Japan and almost certainly spelled the end of his Test career given his move to London Irish. Hence, his Irish career ended with that defeat by Wales, and his Leinster one in that European final loss against Saracens.
The news did not come as a surprise in the light of Leo Cullen revealing on Friday that O’Brien’s hip was at him again, and the sight of Johnny Sexton affording O’Brien the honour of lifting the trophy after Leinster’s 18-15 win over Glasgow in the Guinness Pro14 final at Celtic Park on Saturday, following which no team-mate dared to buffet him, merely showering him in champagne.
“We knew early enough that Seánie was struggling a little bit,” said Sexton afterwards. “And we wanted to make sure his last contribution wasn’t Saracens. His last memory now will be lifting the trophy. There’s not too many people who have lifted the trophy by themselves in Leinster. It’s guys like Leo and Isa [Nacewa], they’re the only two. The rest of the time we always do it in twos.”
“It was fitting for him, we’re really going to miss him. I’m going to miss him. To be fair, he’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with. As a forward, I’d say he’s the best. Just, other forwards in the world didn’t have his drive. As a leader and a player we’re going to miss him.”
Stuart Lancaster said: “I think he’s a fantastic leader, a fantastic player, a fantastic character, a fantastic personality. I think he’ll be massively, massively missed by Leinster.”
O’Brien only played 24 games in the last three seasons and the Leinster head coach ruefully admitted: “I didn’t really get the benefit of really coaching him the way in which I wanted.
“But his qualities still shone through and I thought it was a great testament to the team, and to Johnny in particular, that he would give Sean the opportunity to raise the trophy because it’s been an emotional few weeks for Seán to leave Leinster, and we all feel his disappointment that he has to leave. But ultimately I’m very proud to have worked with him and I’d consider him a good mate.”
Joe Schmidt has now been denied both O’Brien and Dan Leavy for the World Cup, which Sexton admitted “has been at the back of everyone’s minds for ages. It’s very hard not to think about it. We’ll enjoy this tonight and tomorrow. We’ve our ten-year [Heineken Cup] reunion on Tuesday and Wednesday so I’m looking forward to that, to seeing some old faces again.
“But I’ll take a rest and try and stay in as good shape as possible to come back into pre-season for what is going to be a big five/six months for the whole country really.”
Leinster will be hit hardest of the provinces as Ireland’s bulk suppliers and, also citing the ever increasing investments at leading French and English clubs, Cullen was mindful that no Celtic side made the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup in the last World Cup season.
“It is a tricky transition post the World Cup, depending on how the team obviously goes. You are dealing with either success or disappointment, whatever way that plays out. That we can’t control, we will just work away with the group of players that we have.
“Hopefully we will have a good contingent going to the World Cup because it is genuinely good to have that, and then we will see where we are for that period,” said Cullen, noting that despite the later start domestically, there will be five rounds of the Pro14 during the World Cup, with Europe starting a fortnight after the final, and the ten month season continues in to June.
“So it is a pretty full-on season,” said Cullen, which is putting it mildly.