Leinster’s Conor O’Brien close to realising Champions Cup dream

Centre could be brought into Champions Cup squad after his fine display against Ulster

Conor O’Brien celebrates his try against Ulster. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Conor O’Brien celebrates his try against Ulster. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Conor O’Brien is on the cusp of realising a childhood dream to play for Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup. The likelihood is Leo Cullen will register the 22-year-old Westmeath born centre by Tuesday’s deadline, providing the possibility - rather than probability - of O’Brien being involved in the matchday squad against Toulouse at the RDS on Saturday (1.0).

Monday training and review is O’Brien’s immediate focus after his man-of-the-match, try scoring performance against Ulster, but when pushed as to what it would mean, he explained: “(It would) mean everything. Every Saturday morning when I was a kid and after coming back from rugby training I would sit up, ma would put on the dinner, and watch Isa Nacewa, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy tearing it up.

“Playing out in front of a full house in the RDS in the Champions Cup; if I didn’t say I was excited for that or say I dreamt about that, I’d be lying to you.”

A standout member of the Nigel Carolan’s Ireland team that got to the Under-20 World Junior Championship final in 2016, he offered an evaluation on how he’s progressed as a player in the intervening period. “A lot of passing, that was a big thing for me, getting ball to the width and not being a one trick pony in terms of being able to carry it up the pitch. That was a big thing.

“Working on my kicking, doing a lot of organisation and communication off the ball is a big thing because I naturally tend to be a bit quiet. Forwards will let you know fairly quickly if you are not loud enough.

“I wouldn’t be a quiet person per se but maybe it takes me a while to adapt to an environment, a bit longer maybe than other people.”

He took inspiration from several of his U-20s teammates. “That’s a standard; those lads have kicked on so well, JR (James Ryan), (Andrew) Porter and (Jacob) Stockdale, unbelievable players. They have set the bar, (they’re) the same age, we have played on the same teams, so when you see lads like that reach such heights, that’s what you are aiming for. They are holding their own at international level (and are) unbelievable role models.”

Conor O’Brien was named man of the match as Leinster eased to victory over Ulster at the RDS. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Conor O’Brien was named man of the match as Leinster eased to victory over Ulster at the RDS. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Their success galvanised him to knock on a door. O’Brien, in his third year in the Leinster academy, went to see Cullen earlier in the season and asked the Leinster head coach what he needed to do to be given a chance with the first team. He was told to work hard on his game, play well in the Celtic Cup and the opportunities would arise.

Seven games, five starts, four tries underline his excellent form. Felipe Contepomi has been a tough but fair taskmaster that has accelerated O’Brien’s development. “He provides a lot of constructive criticism. He means well and sometimes it’s harsh or whatever, but he’ll be like ‘this will make you a better player’.

“You look at yourself in videos and every week you’re looking at different things you’re doing and your movements off the ball. That’s a big thing for me, not following the play. He was saying I was playing almost like an amateur, following the play and trying to get involved in everything whereas the best option is to sit back and get into the right position.”

But perhaps it’s germane to leave the final word to Cullen. “I saw a lot of Conor when he was with the Ireland U-20s and I thought he was one of the standouts then. He needs to understand that we have confidence, so when we put him in there, we think he is ready. 

“He needs to back himself now; he is a player with a huge amount of potential and ability. He’s getting there, gradually. He’s definitely a live option for us. He’s a very strong ball carrier and he’s got a big left foot as well. He’s getting better all the time and learning and understanding what is required of him.”

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