SEAN O’BRIEN’S REPUTATION has been unsurprisingly been built around his explosive ball carrying ability, but there is far more to his game than steam-rolling defenders.
His most spectacular contribution to Leinster’s excellent 19-9 defeat of the Ospreys on Saturday evening was the dynamic fend on Dan Biggar, but it was far from his most important act. The Tullow man also crossed the whitewash for his team’s only try of the encounter, but again those five points were not his most vital input.
It was O’Brien’s phenomenal work at the breakdown which was the difference between the teams and it is an area where the flanker has been steadily improving over the last two seasons. The image of the Ireland international is of a brutish powerhouse on the charge, bouncing defenders out of the way and it’s certainly a justified one. Ball carrying will always be one of the main strengths of the Leinster man’s game, but his breakdown work must be highlighted too.
Moving O’Brien to openside flanker was originally met with doubts over his ability to dominate the ruck area when up against more ‘natural’ groundhogs like Sam Warburton. There is still a sense that that false perception exists, and it is quite possible that it held him back on the Lions tour. However, if O’Brien can continue to turn in performances like Saturday’s, any question marks over his breakdown ability will be utterly redundant.
Two weekends ago, Leinster were destroyed at the breakdown by a hungry and focused Munster team at Thomond Park. Understandably, Matt O’Connor’s focus in the following week was on the ruck area and improving Leinster’s aggression there. Luke Fitzgerald revealed to TheScore.ie that he and his team-mates had been drilled time and again on ensuring that Justin Tipuric’s influence for the Ospreys was diminished.
O’Brien was clearly listening. He was a constant menace at the breakdown, ruining the Ospreys best passages of play with his steals and counter-rucking. The most noticeable feature of it all was the fact that his three clean steals came with Tipuric close by, just a second behind the Leinster openside’s pace. Up against arguably the best openside flanker in the Northern Hemisphere, O’Brien proved his ever-growing breakdown excellence.
His first steal of the evening came in the 18th minute, after the Ospreys had gone through their first passage of extended time in the Leinster 22. The Welsh side had played through eight phases and worked the ball wide to the left. Ashley Beck got himself slightly isolated as he carried and O’Brien was over the ball in a flash. As you can see in the screen grab below, Tipuric (in the blue scrum cap) is arriving just too late and O’Brien wins possession.
O’Brien’s next turnover came in the second half, and once again as the Ospreys attacked close to Leinster’s 22. By that stage, Leinster had built up a 16-9 lead and the home side were getting desperate for a score. Ryan Jones carried, Fergus McFadden tackled and Sean O’Brien burst into the ‘jackal’ position over the ball, as you’ll see in the screen grab below.
Once again, it’s worth nothing Tipuric’s late arrival on the scene. O’Brien was once again alert enough to recognise the chance for a turnover and the Welsh openside’s arrival was just too late. Another point to highlight is O’Brien’s sheer strength to stay over the ball when the powerful Adam Jones is attempting to clear him away with a ‘tin-opener’ technique, where the defender is rolled away off the ball.
O’Brien’s third and final clean steal came in the 68th minute, with the Ospreys now throwing everything at Leinster in the hope of rescuing a game that was slipping away. This was just the second phase of an attack started at a line-out on the right, but O’Brien once again identified the split second opportunity for a steal.
At this stage, it’s not even necessary to point out the blue scrum cap getting to the ruck with enough of a delay to allow O’Brien to affect the turnover. In the freeze frame below, O’Brien is just about to clamp down over the ball, before ripping it away and allowing Leinster to clear their lines.
There was more to O’Brien’s breakdown prowess than just the three turnovers highlighted above. He featured prominently as Leinster went forward too, part of an impressive team effort to ensure clean ball at the back of the ruck for Isaac Boss. O’Brien’s counter-rucking on Ashley Beck also lead to another second half turnover.
Matt O’Connor’s message of beating Tipuric at the breakdown certainly resonated with the Leinster players, particularly Sean O’Brien. The 26-year-old continues to stand out at the breakdown and has developed into a complete openside flanker.