BEYOND THE FACT that the IRFU has demonstrated that the money on offer in France is not quite enough to sway all of their highest-profile players just yet, the governing body of Irish rugby has pulled off a masterstroke in securing the immediate future of its most important player.
Jonny Sexton has justifiably been suggested as the man around whom Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team will be built, but it is Sean O’Brien who will be the most decisive influence in deciding how they fare over the coming years.
Simply put, the Leinster man is among the best players in the world. Recent shoulder surgery has denied Ireland the opportunity to unleash O’Brien in the forthcoming Six Nations, but the 26-year-old is worth the wait. If Schmidt is to have any success at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the Carlow man will be crucial.
If O’Brien had departed for Toulon, we may have been left wondering ‘what if?’ in the long-term. The concerns over Sexton’s ability to handle the heavy workload he has encountered at Racing Métro so far this season pointed to the possibility of O’Brien’s attritional style of play leading to cumulative injuries from the wear and tear of the Top 14.
Instead, O’Brien will continue to be managed intelligently by the IRFU and we are likely to see him push towards fulfilling the highest ceiling of his potential. The fact that concerns about him leaving will re-surface in two years’ time are not an issue right now. Instead, the relief is palpable.
At its core, rugby is a collision-based momentum game. The side that can win the contact situations [tackles, carries, breakdown, mauls] will invariably build the momentum to score points and swing the game in their favour. Whatever about team tactics and game plans, excelling in those basic areas is almost always essential to winning.
O’Brien has developed into a complete back row player over the last two to three seasons, capable of carrying explosively, stealing possession at the breakdown, racking up inspirational tackle counts and clearing out attacking rucks with vicious precision. His offloading has improved greatly to add another string to an already-impressive bow.
O’Brien on the farm in Carlow. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.
His awareness in attack is a part of his game that is still growing, with his ability to make linking passes out to the backs something that is perhaps under-utilised at present. O’Brien’s habit of consistently breaking the gain-line in attack means he has ignored better-positioned players in the past, but his appreciation of space improves all the time.
That points to the fact that at 26, there is still lots of scope for the Leinster flanker to become an even better player. If we look to the example of Kieran Read , another player with a diligent approach to training, we see exactly how vastly a back row can improve in the space of just two years in his late 20s. That is the benchmark for O’Brien now.
Schmidt’s plans for Ireland in the coming years will almost certainly be based around the same high-tempo play that made Leinster such a success in his time with the province. In order to implement that, the national team will need to get over the gain-line, clear rucks speedily and work hard to re-position themselves for each new wave of attack. O’Brien is likely to lead all of those areas upon his return.
It was encouraging to hear O’Brien unconsciously highlight his own growing leadership in the immediate aftermath of November’s defeat to the All Blacks too. He did not simply accept a glorious failure, instead pointing out that Ireland needed to mature.
Lads will have to have a good look at their game; what we did well and didn’t do so well. I think we can improve on that performance today. We were obviously annoyed after last week and that fueled the fire for today along with the day that was in it – history and whatnot – but I think it’s time lads grew up and know what’s expected when they put on an Irish jersey.
“That performance today, we can be proud, but it still wasn’t good enough.”
O’Brien has not stayed in Ireland simply to take care of his cattle; he is staying to ensure he has the best possible chance of winning Six Nations, Grand Slams and Heineken Cups. That Ireland and Leinster will continue to have their best player involved in those challenges makes their chances of success all the greater.