Seán O’Brien blames coaches for Lions not winning series
If coaches had a better attacking game plan Lions could have won series 3-0, says flanker
Lions forward Sean O’Brien in action during the third Test against the All Blacks, at Eden Park, Auckland. Photograph: James Crombie
In his typically forthright and unflinching way, Seán O’Brien has said that the British & Irish Lions were over-trained in the build-up to the first Test especially against the All Blacks, and also the series decider, while he also spoke of the shortcomings in their attacking game.
The All Blacks’s results before and since, not least last Saturday’s record 57-0 defeat of South Africa, reflect well on the Lions’s achievement in becoming the only side to beat the back-to-back world champions in their own country since 2008 when levelling the series by winning the second Test in Wellington.
However, O’Brien maintains they could and should have won the series 3-0, and may have done so but for the coaching staff overloading the players in the day before the two Tests in Eden Park.
We did a triple day on the Thursday before the first Test. You can’t do that. If you’re playing a game with Tullow we wouldn’t do that
O’Brien was speaking in his home club of Tullow, where it was announced that Bank of Ireland have entered into a five-year extension of their sponsorship through to the 2023 season. In addition to exclusive branding of all playing and training kits for the Leinster professional team, the partnership continues to encompass all Leinster Rugby activity right through to grassroots community, schools and club level.
As in the aftermath of the 2013 tour, the Leinster and Irish flanker has presented a second Lions jersey to his club, who won last season’s Bank of Ireland Towns Cup.
Compared to the Lions tour in 2013, O’Brien was more content with his own contribution this summer, when starting all three Tests, but was eager to move on to his critique of the tour as a whole.
“Yeah, I think I had a very good tour. Things went well over there for me. Probably the way it was structured the coaches were doing a bit of catch-up before the first Test and the week leading into the last Test as well. They will probably take a lot of learnings from that, in terms of how they structured the week for us and made sure we were as fresh as possible. But it didn’t really happen in the first week or last week.”
Specifically, O’Brien said: “We did a triple day on the Thursday before the first Test. You can’t do that. If you’re playing a game with Tullow we wouldn’t do that, I’d say.”
This, he said, was relayed to the coaches at the time by senior players. “But some of the coaches wanted to get info and they wanted to tick their boxes, and we did discuss it afterwards. Friday was very light but it was too late at that stage. People were trying to recover all day Friday.”
“I think in the second week we got it perfect. We did a lot less, kept training short and sharp, and we were fresh come the weekend. Then in the last week we probably had too many days off at the start of the week.”
In O’Brien’s view, Warren Gatland and the Lions coaching staff erred in giving the players Monday and Tuesday off of the final week when they went off tour to Queenstown, before training on three successive days. He believes they should have trained on the Tuesday in Queenstown, before taking off the Wednesday, which was a travel day, as was the case in Noosa four years previously before the third Test in Sydney.
I didn’t want the tour to pass by without me speaking up or saying a few messages that I thought were relevant in getting us to perform
“I just think again then when lads started training on Wednesday we had a tough day on Wednesday, we had a longer day on Thursday when there was only one session, and then you’re playing catch-up again with your body trying to get fresh for Saturday.”
O’Brien also feels that with a better attacking game, the Lions could have won the series 3-0. Here again, O’Brien lays the blame at the door of the coaches. “The coaches have a lot to answer for in terms of our attack rather than Johnny [Sexton] and Faz [Owen Farrell] trying to drive it.”
“If I was being critical of any coach it would be the fact that I think Rob [Howley] struggled with the group in terms of his attributes of trying to get stuff across whereas Johnny and Owen drove everything the second week, for instance, in our attack and had a better plan in place. So I don’t know if it was people were not buying into what he was about or whatever else. That’s the hard thing about a Lions tour as well: getting everyone to listen to a coach that was probably set in his ways.”
That O’Brien is more willing to air his views both to the coaches and publicly perhaps betrays a more experienced and confident player. “I think going back a few years, I probably might not have said or had those conversations with the coaches. If you look at the chats I had with Gats, because I was playing well, he entertained me a bit more, and asked for my opinion on things, but if you’re not playing well, he doesn’t really talk to you. That’s just the way it is. I didn’t want the tour to pass by without me speaking up or saying a few messages that I thought were relevant in getting us to perform.”
The coaches, he added, “have to learn from it going forward. Whether I am there or not in four years is a different story. Coaching-wise they need to make sure they have the best coaches in the best positions, attack, defence, forwards, whatever it may be on a Lions tour.”
All that said and done, O’Brien admitted that making a third Lions tour to South Africa in 2021, when he will be 34, is a feasible target.
“That would be probably a long-term goal, that would be a good way of going out, if I could get there.“
Were Gatland and much of the Lions’ coaching staff still in situ, he’d have no qualms about outlining his views to him and them.
“A hundred per cent.”
He says he was “the fittest I had been” on the Lions tour, and is not far from a return with Leinster. “Yeah, nearly back there now. Another week of training probably, this week now will get me back nearly where I was, I’d say.”
O’Brien on drawing the series with the All Blacks:
“I think we should have won 3-0 with the players we had. We should have won the series. And, looking back, and I could be completely wrong, but if we had a little more structure during the weeks, and more of an attack game plan, as such, driven way earlier in the tour, I think we could win 3-0.”
On the mistakes made before the first and third Tests:
“The first Test was a bit different, we were definitely a bit flatter, but they’d a very good game plan that day. We were on the back foot. We weren’t expecting that.
“The last Test, looking back, probably the start of the week annoyed me a little bit the way they [the coaches] didn’t have us on the field, getting a little bit of info into us early in the week, then give us a bit of downtime. Plus, it’d keep lads on the straight and narrow as well.”
On whether the Lions coaches panicked before the first Test:
“Yeah, just to try and make sure they’ve all the boxes ticked as coaches. I think in the second week we got it perfect. We did a lot less, kept training short and sharp, and we were fresh come the weekend. Then in the last week we probably had too many days off at the start of the week.”
“Standards are obviously high and we want to win trophies again, so that’s what we want to go about doing. We set our stall out nice and early and I suppose we’ve a couple of massive weeks coming up now in the league and the Champions Cup, so I think we’ve developed a little bit from where we were last year as well.
“It was our first year playing that style of game and, I suppose, unstructured stuff, so we’ll elaborate on it a bit more. We’ve been working hard over the last six weeks, the lads who have come back from the tour, and hopefully we’ll integrate in properly next week if called upon.”
On Joe Schmidt:
“He will take an idea on board and see what it’s like in his own head. He might come back to you and say ‘right, yeah, we might try this variation’. A tour is different because you don’t have that time. If you have seven or eight weeks to make sure you are ticking all the right boxes so time is limited with players on the field.
“But the big difference with Joe is regardless of the time he will have the right things to put yourself into the right position, or to get pressure or to get points to get something out of it. We done that at times over there, don’t get me wrong. There was some good things that we done and a lot of opportunities that we left out but going forward it can better obviously.”