Seán O’Brien has his eye on the Lions
Backrower wants his place in Warren Gatland’s team to face New Zealand
Seán O’Brien’s display for Leinster against Wasps in the Champions Cup quarter-final shows he is in rude health. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Welsh forward Sam Warburton is the betting favourite to captain the Lions in New Zealand this summer Seán O’Brien is informed.
A large table separates the Ireland flanker from the group. But this close up just a tiny narrowing of his eyes performs the act of faux menace just so.
“Is he yeah?,“ he smiles. “It would be a funny one now.”
That’s a loose use of the word funny. Selecting the man, who has played in the same position as O’Brien, as captain might shine a different light on the summer tour, jaundice his hopes of being a leading player in the Test side.
That despite Warburton’s form dipping and moving from the Wales seven jersey to blindside flanker, with Justin Tipuric taking over at openside this season.
O’Brien has been here before and has some of the dirt from the midweek games under his nails. But there was an aspect of the last tour to Australia in 2013 that left him both frustrated and wanting more.
“Obviously, it is [a goal],” he says. “It’s a huge thing for players. It doesn’t come around that often. Being there the last time as well, you know what it’s going to be like and that’s an exciting part of it. It’ll be nervy for the next week or so.”
The Lions has been the question players have been avoiding for most of the season. But as June creeps closer and the leagues and cups reach their endgames, Lions selection and the idiosyncratic Warren Gatland are seizing more ground.
It’s just under two months before the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians host the tourists at the Toll Stadium, Whangarei.
More ambitiously inclined this time and rightly so, that might be an opening match in which O’Brien hopes to play. That is 21 days before the first Test match in Eden Park. Closer to home Gatland will announce his travelling squad on April 19th.
“Yeah, I think I’ve put myself in the frame to be selected,” he says. “It’s up to the coaches and we’ll see what squad they want to pick. It would be in the back of your mind a bit but you still have to play well every week, and we’ll see where we are on the 19th.”
O’Brien has changed over the intervening years and has been adding know how to his game. Call it what you will, experience, expertise, pitch craft. The end result, he believes, has made him an improved package.
“I’d say I’m a better player now, I’d say. I’m more experienced,” he says. “The last tour . . . I was probably frustrated with the last tour because everything was going well at training and I was playing well in the midweek games.
“I wasn’t selected the first day [for the first Test]. I was 24th man. Then off the bench in the second one and to start the third one was brilliant. I had mixed feelings on the last tour, but if selected it would be unbelievable again.”
If it sounds like a more forthright O’Brien, a slightly different version of the O’Brien heard over the last year or so, it may because he has changed. His health is where he wants it to be. Little cameos in the Wasps game showed it. His break with the ball; chasing no slow coach Christian Wade; passing out his scrumhalf.
Freshness and the vitality
He’s pleased about where he is, the freshness and the vitality of a player having faith in his body. Knowing the fitness and strength is there brings urgency and motivation to his game.
“I actually passed out Luke McGrath,” he says, pleased to share. “I was skitting him about it actually, ‘Where were you off to?’ I feel good, I feel fit and I felt back to myself. It took a while.
“I’m looking after myself very well, doing a lot of work on off days and non-training days and minding myself really well, recovering well. That’s probably been a big thing. It’s a routine now for me, things to do to tick the box, to make sure I’m ready to play at the weekend.”
He’s in Dublin promoting Tipp24, a betting brand. Hauled ashore early on Saturday was a reflection of his worth to Leinster. The club like him in this condition.
“There’s always stuff, there’s bits of us hanging off all the time. You just look after them as best you can and make sure you stay on top of them all the time,” he says. “Fitness-wise, I’m definitely in a good place. I think the best is yet to come.”