Think back to the events which unfolded at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch on June 10. Up to that point, the British and Irish Lions had performed poorly, scraping past a Provincial Union XV and losing to the Auckland Blues, the weakest of the New Zealand rugby sides.
At this stage, the knives were being sharpened ahead of what many commentators, pundits and journalists expected to be a Crusaders victory against a Lions side which looked unprepared and devoid of any attacking game plan.
However, the Lions put in an excellent performance against the Crusaders, who were unbeaten in their Super Rugby season at the time. One of the standout performers in that game was Sean O’Brien. The 30-year-old put in a performance which reminded everyone why he is considered one of the best opensides in the world. Although his carrying was relatively limited, he made each one count and consistently got over the gain-line. Defensively he was solid, missing only one tackle and contributing heavily to two turnovers in the game at crucial moments. At the breakdown, he was at his destructive best.
Ultimately, this performance made the New Zealand media stand up and take notice. This was a serious player the Lions had on their hands and most impressively, this was O’Brien’s first appearance in 71 days, the last of which came in Leinster’s quarter-final victory over Wasps at the Aviva Stadium in the Champions Cup on April 1.
For those who are unfamiliar with O’Brien, he has a knack of coming back from lengthy injury layoffs and putting in great performances. This case was no different. But it’s a testament to the players’ professionalism, appetite for the game and desire to perform at the highest level that he is able to do this.
So then why is it that when a player of such experience, quality and absolute commitment to his craft is considered to be “letting the Lions down”, as one UK publication described it, when he is simply saying things should have been better?
We are told on a consistent basis that the Lions is the pinnacle of a rugby player’s career, it the most demanding of tours, both physically and mentally and playing against the All Blacks in this scenario is the most difficult tour of them all. Thus, doesn’t this require the highest level of coaching? So, if that is what did not present itself, then why should players accept that?
What happened is that O’Brien was asked his opinion on the tour, there were things he wasn’t happy about and he aired these views in a calm and assured manner – there was no “scathing attack”.
We currently live in a time where professional players are heavily media trained, for their own protection, of course, and that can be understood. We in the media often complain about this as we search for the allusive angle or comment on which we can base our pieces and fill column inches. So to be perfectly honest, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a player speak so candidly about his experiences.
The point must also be made that these comments were made two months after the culmination of the Lions tour. That’s two whole months for O’Brien to reflect on what transpired in New Zealand. Doesn’t this just add more weight and respectability to the points he made? These weren’t comments made in a rash manner in the immediate aftermath of a game – it was a well thought out and honest opinion given to multiple media formats.
As much as the negative media reaction is disappointing, the furore around the story is expected, such is the landscape which currently exists in sports media. And this is why O’Brien should be praised for the comments he made. He’s been in this game long enough to know what kind of reaction he was going to get but he felt so strongly about the issue that he said it anyway, regardless of the inevitable crosshair which has been placed on him.
Here’s a segment from O’Brien’s statement he released on social media yesterday:
“But do I believe we – the players and coaches – could have done better? Yes. Do I believe we could have won the series? Yes. Do I believe the Lions squad in 2021 will be better for this? Yes.”
It was a selfless act from O’Brien to offer up criticism that most players would be too afraid to do so, and praise must be given to the man from Carlow who broke the mould and demands the very best.