O’Brien's hopes for Irish rugby's new generation

O’Brien's hopes for Irish rugby's new generation

WHEN the sands of time ran out on Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Donncha O’Callaghan, John Hayes, Stephen Ferris, Geordan Murphy and David Wallace, there was an inevitable fear that a sporting recession would follow the boom and a team which once stood for all that was good about Irish sport would soon stand for little more than the National Anthem.

Not everyone is so panicky, though.

Sean O’Brien, for a start, argues that those left to carry the baton are more than capable of sustaining the success achieved by the classes of 2009 and 2014.

“The players we have coming through are top class,” O’Brien reckons. “So not only do I feel something very special could happen in Leinster over the next few years, but there’s a good vibe about the national team too.

“We can do really well in the World Cup. So long as we play the way we want — we will be hard to live with. We showed that form last autumn — and again, before then, in the Six Nations.

“So we just have to go to the World Cup with the mentality we can really make an impact in the tournament. Beyond that, I wouldn’t be worrying at all, because all four provinces have serious talent emerging at the 22, 23, 24 mark.”

The most serious talent of all, though, remains O’Brien. At 27, he has just had a nightmare year, overcoming a shoulder injury which posed some doubts about his future. “It is probably one of the worst injuries you can get as a back-rower, but I feel fine now. Rehab can be a really tedious period. But that is the game you are in. You pick up injuries and you just have to accept that and do your best to recover from them. At times it was a bit of a nightmare…”

But he got on with it. That’s O’Brien for you, the kind of man who treats the twin imposters of triumph and disaster just the same.

Four years ago, we met in Cafe En Seine, in Dublin’s city centre and after swapping jokes about how such a posh venue was unsuitable for two “boyos from de sticks”, his humility quickly came to the surface. This, after all, was a man who just 10 days previously had been awarded the ERC’s player of the year prize on the back of Leinster’s second Heineken Cup triumph.

“To get those two things is an unbelievable feeling, a dream, a place I’d never thought I’d be,” he admitted.

“But now that I have done this, circumstances have changed and I want more. I want to be playing with Ireland as often as I can, want to play for the Lions in years to come.

“You play to win trophies. I’m no different to anyone else.”

Except that this is the big deal about O’Brien — because he is different. Rather than being pigeon-holed as another of Irish rugby’s posh little rich boys, whose parents sent him to a fee-paying school, O’Brien grew up on a Carlow farm, learning the game at his local club, Tullow, where his father coached.

As his talent shone, UCD showed interest, offering him a sports scholarship in a class whose alumni included the League of Ireland’s top youngster, Ronan Finn, the 2009 Irish Open winner, Shane Lowry, and the Dublin hurler, John McCaffrey.

“I didn’t have much of a college life,” O’Brien admits. “I was up at seven in the morning for gym work and then into class.”

His commitment didn’t go unnoticed. Leinster called, but O’Brien’s path to sporting maturity was blocked by Rocky Elsom, the Australian flanker. “Maybe it was a good thing not to get too much too soon because it kind of drove me on.”

So too did Michael Cheika’s policy of hard love.  “I used to think I was hard done by with Cheiks because I’d do all the work he asked and still be on the bench,” he remembers. “But I’ve spoken with him since and get on very well with the man.”

But did he get on with Cheika, the coach?  “He was very controlling — wanting to do everything — and it’s only in the last year or two he has realised he has to let other people come in. Joe (Schmidt, Cheika’s replacement) brought the team to another level with his style of play. He’s a calming person, approachable and tells you it as it is.”

What Schmidt told O’Brien in his first season laid the seeds for the year he has just had, reassuring him that despite his broken leg, he saw him as a man with world-class potential.

Within a year, we saw his potential realised, with O’Brien winning so many man-of-the-match awards with Leinster and Ireland that his house stank of champagne.

For all his new-found fame, he has retained an old-fashioned humility. His Carlow accent hasn’t softened and his ability to be self-confident yet modest has not gone unnoticed among rugby royalty.

For even though he prefers the company of his Carlow buddies to the rugger buggers who hang around town, he and O’Driscoll struck up a quiet friendship, for example.

“At first I was in awe of Brian,” admits O’Brien. “I knew I had to gain his respect and that is what you do on the field.

“He’s a great person as well as a great bloke. I’d feel easy about going to him for advice. He’s just a natural leader — one who rarely had a bad game, who speaks well, plus was one of the toughest players you will ever come across.”

Yet not the hardest in the Leinster or Ireland panels. That prize goes to the Tullow tank who shocked medics by coming back two months ahead of schedule from that shoulder injury and who in 2010 was back walking within two weeks of an operation to mend a broken leg.

“This doesn’t usually happen for a month or two,” his doctor told him.

What he didn’t understand was that he was talking to a young man in a hurry. And now the rush is for more glory.

“We can be excited about this Six Nations. If everyone is fit, it can be exciting. Iain Henderson is probably one of the most powerful players in the country at the minute. Luke Fitzgerald is looking very sharp. Hopefully it will all come together.”

It could well do. For the first time in a while, he is no longer left to shoulder the burden of responsibility alone.