Sean O’Brien’s ‘business as usual’ is quite a statement
The Tullow Tank displays his footballing and decision-making skills in stellar display
Leinster forward Sean O’Brien receives his man of the match award after his impressive display in the victory over Ulster. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The Tullow Tank is known for his rampaging runs, his physicality in contact, his ability over the ball, his uncompromising, leadership-from-the-front approach, but Sean O’Brien is a pretty handy footballer too.
As with Conor Murray a week before, cometh the hour (what is it about this moment?) cometh the man. Ulster only trailed by 13-10, and Leinster were down to 14 men with Dave Kearney in the bin. Rodney Ah You, charged on to a pass from Aaron Cairns on halfway in the middle of the pitch, which might have been a tad more sympathetic, and spilled it.
As Devin Toner turned, bent down and picked the ball up, O’Brien immediately saw the possibilities.
He screamed at his Leinster and Irish team-mate from a position wider and deeper, and he himself ran on to Toner’s looped pass. He had two players to his outside and feinted to pass, but instead heard the call from Adam Byrne, coming at pace from deeper still, and pulled the ball back for the winger.
O’Brien then looped around Byrne when he took two tackles to free his hands, and called for the offload. Now the possibilities were greater still. Most players at this point would have used the players on his outside, and Jacob Stockdale clearly expected O’Brien to do so.
The upwardly mobile Ulster winger charged up and in from his wing, and O’Brien sold him a delicious dummy pass. See you later. Now, all that remained to be done was to pass the ball from left to right, but even here O’Brien had the wit to opt for a skip pass to Luke McGrath, who showed decent pace to score in the corner.
In all, he had about six decisions to make in quick succession, and not only made them correctly, but had the skills to execute them too.
It also highlighted Leinster’s superior and well-honed ability to transition from defence into attack, which has been particularly manifest in the last two seasons.
“It has but a lot of teams are doing it,” stressed O’Brien. “It is something we have worked on and we are seeing results from it. It remains a work in progress, something we do every week, and we just need to try and develop that. There were opportunities tonight that we didn’t necessarily take. We got lucky as well, in terms of dropped balls.”
It’s clearly the product of work on the Leinster training ground, all the more so since Stuart Lancaster came in, although any temptation to ask whether this might have been the product of Rob Howley’s “chaos” sessions on the Lions tour were dispelled when O’Brien was asked if he wanted to make a statement on the pitch after his recent, well-publicised critique.
“No. I don’t need to make any statements. It was business as usual from me.”
All in all though, in what was only his second outing of the season, one of Ireland’s truly world-class players looked in prime nick on his timely return.
“I feel good. I had a frustrating few weeks with my calf. It was more of a stamp than anything else. I have looked after myself pretty well. Last week was touch and go. I was probably fit but not fit enough early in the week for selection. I have worked hard in the last few weeks. By the end of the game, I was blowing hard but that is to be expected.”
Asked to compare his fitness and form now to where he was with the Lions when the Test series started, he smiled broadly and ventured: “I am not too far off it. I just need to lose about half a kilo.”
Strength in depth
Despite the absence of Jamie Heaslip and Josh van der Flier, O’Brien is one of four Leinster men in Ireland’s contingent of seven backrowers. Asked if he was looking forward to wearing the green jersey again: “Yeah, like please God again, [but] there are so many players in form. It will be a tough team to get into over the next few weeks.”
As this win showed, such strength in depth is, he agreed, again serving Leinster well.
“Yes, we have a hugely talented squad. You look at the back row alone. How many lads are in there? They are breathing down all of our necks which is what you want. It keeps standards very high. We have cover everywhere.”
A prime example was Jordan Larmour slotting in off the bench in just his fifth Leinster appearance, and sidestepping Iain Henderson before rounding Cairns for his stunning try, and second for Leinster.
“He is an incredibly talented player. We just want to give him opportunities now. It was something special [his try] and we got it when we needed it as well. We were under the pump for a while, only had the ball for a few minutes at that stage, and then he does that. He is going in the right direction.”