Home Rugby Sean O’Brien – Conqueror Of Injury And Bane Of The All Blacks

Sean O’Brien – Conqueror Of Injury And Bane Of The All Blacks

“I have learned one thing,” screenplay writer Marshall Brickman told the New York Times in an interview alongside Oscar winning director Woody Allen in 1977.

“As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life.’”

In Hollywood showing up is 80% of life and 100% of the job. You have to show up to shoot. It’s the most basic, fundamental function of film production. Actors show up to the set, they act out their scenes, cameras roll and movies are made.

The life of a professional rugby player is naturally very different to that of a Hollywood screenwriter, filmmaker or actor, but in essence, the job is ultimately still the same, you still have to show up.

For most international rugby players this isn’t a problem. They go through a full pre-season, they work their way into form for their clubs and they come into the international break in peak condition.

For players like Ireland’s Sean O’Brien this routine is a pipe dream, an idealistic want, a perfect world, because for players like Sean O’Brien it’s a struggle. The Leinster and Ireland flanker has been battling injury for the majority of his professional career. A hip injury marred the start of his season in 2012, a shoulder injury forced him to miss 11 consecutive tests in 2014, and a series of recurring hamstring injuries have limited him to just 12 Tests for Ireland over the past two years.

Showing up is not 80% of life for O’Brien, it’s the biggest question mark of his career – will he be able to play? Will he get injured again? Who do we play at openside if he’s unavailable?

The three questions Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has had to ask himself every single time Ireland have gathered for a training camp or Test match over the last three years.

However, the one question that Schmidt has not had to ask himself over the past three years is who is Ireland’s first choice openside? That question has already been definitively answered by O’Brien over the last six years, although the emergence of Leinster teammate Josh van der Flier has made it much more of an open-ended question than what it once was, a fact that has not been lost on Joe Schmidt.

“We thought it was probably better that Sean start than come off the bench,” said Schmidt of O’Brien’s selection for this Saturday’s Test with New Zealand in Dublin (via RTE).

“He needs to feel his way into the game a little bit, to get a run straight from the warm-up into the game.

“Whereas Josh [van der Flier] has been with us for a bit longer, obviously came to Chicago, spent that time with us and did such a good job off the bench that his versatility, his engine at the end of the day might serve us well.

“So it was really just trying to keep the balance there.”

Balance is such a pivotal concept to Schmidt’s Ireland sides. Irish Rugby possesses tremendous depth and balance within its current playing ranks and with guys like Van Der Flier, Iain Henderson, Cian Healy, Paddy Jackson and Garry Ringrose all coming off the bench, Ireland really have a great second unit that is among the best in world rugby.

There is genuine competition for places in Schmidt’s Irish sides and it’s a testament to O’Brien’s fortitude as a player, athlete and as a man, that he’s been able to work his way back in to the national set-up so quickly.

Sean O'Brien

Over the last six seasons O’Brien has generally walked straight back into the Irish side when healthy. He might have had a tune up game beforehand, as all players who return from injury do, but ultimately, when Sean O’Brien was healthy Sean O’Brien played.

But for the first time since establishing himself as a regular within the Irish set-up, the current November internationals presented an Irish rugby landscape where there was no guarantee over O’Brien’s place in the team, or the squad for that matter.

Josh van Der Flier has already demonstrated that he is more than capable of filling in for O’Brien at both provincial and now international level, and with the likes of Dan Leavy, Tommy O’Donnell, Jordi Murphy, Sean Reidy and Sean O’Brien (Connacht) also available for selection, the Irish openside spot has arguably never been deeper.

The level of competition that the Carlow native has faced in his latest return to the Irish pack has made his most recent comeback even sweeter. The man who has arguably been injured more than just about any other rugby player not named Luke Fitzgerald, has been able to once again walk straight back into an Irish side only a month after returning from an eight-month layoff.

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I’ve watched O’Brien twice now in person since he’s returned from a hamstring injury and his performances have varied greatly.

The first time I watched O’Brien play since his return was in his second game back with Leinster, a fairly meek performance by O’Brien’s own high standards, where he made just 18 metres from five carries with six tackles against an enterprising Connacht side. Nothing spectacular.

The next time I watched him play was for Ireland against Canada at the Aviva Stadium last weekend and this time he was back.

O’Brien may have only picked up a modest 36 metres off 13 carries, but his bite was back against Canada. The mungril and aggression that he is so widely revered for had returned.

He was back to his bustling, burrowing best against Canada and played with a level of ferocity that we hadn’t seen in his previous two games with Leinster.

O’Brien’s aggression and confrontational style of play makes him the player that he is. At his best, O’Brien is a damaging, destructive ball carrier who is a punishing tackler and also a great hole runner.

Ireland’s win over Canada wasn’t his finest ever performance in a green jersey, but there were enough signs there to be encouraged. Firstly, he came through the game unscathed. Secondly, he got his fire back and thirdly, the timing of his return was impeccable with Ireland set to take on New Zealand this Saturday, a side which O’Brien has enjoyed great success against in the past.

Sean O Brien

The last time O’Brien faced New Zealand he was awarded the Man of the Match award in a 24-22 defeat in Dublin.

The Tullow native made 16 tackles forcing one turnover, and also carried the ball seven times for 15 metres, which initially appears to be a very modest outing in attack, but in actuality, was the second highest mark of any Irish forward on the day.

New Zealand flanker Jerome Kaino, who has never actually faced O’Brien, said that the All Blacks are fully aware of O’Brien’s presence and the threat that he can pose to New Zealand.

“They were menacing, very strong with ball in hand and direct,” Kaino said of Ireland pack’s performance in Chicago a fortnight ago (via Independent.ie).

“Sean O’Brien will also be in the mix and he’s very strong with ball in hand. We like to go out and prepare against the best and we consider him one of the best. It would be great if he is running out there and he will be chomping at the bit to come up against us.”

Kaino’s comments are very run of the mill for pre-match media days, you can never go too far wrong by complimenting the opposition, but they do contain more substance than what may appear upon first inspection.

Kaino is right, O’Brien certainly is one of the best flankers in world rugby when firing on all cylinders, but maybe what is more important for Irish fans than what New Zealand will try and do to stop him on Saturday, is that the All Blacks know he’ll be chomping at the bit to play.

It’s been just over nine months since O’Brien has last played a Test match against a Tier 1 nation and there was no coincidence that his best performance since returning from injury came just one week before Ireland play New Zealand in Dublin.

Professional rugby players live for these type of games while the rest of us live to watch them, and the viewing experience is always all the more enjoyable when there is a fit, determined and on form Sean O’Brien involved. Hopefully on Saturday we see it, because Schmidt, Kaino and New Zealand coach Steve Hansen all know that the Tullow Tank can be very hard to stop once he starts rumbling.

Sean O'Brien

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About Jack O'Toole

22-year-old journalism student who writes about sports from time to time. Follow Jack on Twitter at @jackjotoole