IT WAS A long and complicated road back for Sean O’Brien, but having showed diligence and patience in his comeback from hip and shoulder injuries, the 31-year-old has returned in peak physical condition ahead of a crucial block of fixtures for Leinster.
O’Brien came off the bench earlier than expected during Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 victory over Connacht, but came through the 50-odd minutes reporting no ill effects despite his five-month layoff.
O’Brien made his comeback on Saturday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
The hip injury suffered by Rhys Ruddock early in the piece at the Sportsground prompted the ahead-of-schedule arrival of O’Brien, and the Ireland flanker looked in superb nick.
Experience has taught O’Brien to be pragmatic during protracted rehabilitation periods, and certainly he always maintained that he would return no sooner than he was ready, and such endurance appears to have paid dividends.
“Yeah, it’s great to be back,” he said yesterday, looking back on his first Leinster appearance since April. “You try and fit in first, and get into the game the best you can. I wasn’t thinking about much else, to be honest.”
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Ruddock’s injury meant O’Brien slotted in at blindside flanker, with Josh van der Flier on the opposite side and Jack Conan at the back of the scrum. The stat-sheets show the Tullow native made nine carries across 20 metres, while making 15 tackles, but it was his physicality in contact which really stood out.
“There is no point in going on and running around like a headless chicken,” he continues.
“There’s a few bits and pieces that need to be tidied up, get them done first. I just kept talking and giving energy to the lads around me.
“It was great to get an hour under my belt. I wasn’t expecting that at all obviously. But, I said to myself in the changing-room, ‘someone could go down here early on.’ I just had to slog my way through it. It was grand. I got a second wind and grew into the game, I thought. I was happy enough.”
It is refreshing for O’Brien to be talking about his minutes on the pitch again, rather than in the gym or on the treatment table. Last season was a particularly tormenting one for the back row.
A combination of hip and shoulder problems meant he featured just six times for his province, and just twice for Ireland, missing out on the entire Six Nations, the summer tour to Australia and the latter stages of Leinster’s double-winning campaign.
In his absence, Dan Leavy emerged as a real force for both club and country during the second half of last season, while Josh van der Flier has hit the ground running since returning from his own injury torment last year.
O’Brien pictured at Leinster HQ on Monday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
O’Brien’s last game for Ireland was the Autumn international defeat of Argentina at the Aviva Stadium last November, but the 56-time capped international maintains confidence in his own ability that he can win the jersey back and make it his own again.
“You always back yourself obviously, when I’m as fit as I can be and in as good form as I can be, I back myself to play,” he said.
“But you know, there’s so many quality players as well, you have to be playing very consistently, you can’t have a bad game. There’s potentially eight or nine lads in the country who can play in the back row at international — so that’s what you want, it’s healthy.
“It’s a massive competition here, Dan and Josh, Max [Deegan], Jack Conan, Rhys, they’re all international players, so it’s good that they’re driving each other and helping each other in a way, by talking through different combinations and what not, it’s a good place to be.
“Obviously everyone would back themselves when they’re at full fitness.”
The challenge for O’Brien now is to string a run of games together, particularly leading into the November internationals, as he last made back-to-back appearances nine months ago.