‘When I’m as fit as I can be and in as good form as I can be, I back myself to play’

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.

With Leo Cullen set to shuffle his resources for this weekend’s inter-pro derby against Munster at the Aviva Stadium, O’Brien is in line to make his first start in five months.

“It usually takes two or three games to get into top match fitness,” he continues. “Getting 60 under the belt was good. The body feels great, hope to get more minutes this week and over the next few weeks.

“Wherever they [the coaches] want me to play, I’ll play, whether that be six, seven or eight. At the weekend it was six, I don’t know what the plans are this week, but wherever I’m rolled out I’ll be prepared to put my best foot forward hopefully, in whatever position.”

Indeed, O’Brien’s return adds further competition to Leinster’s well-stocked back row options ahead of Saturday’s clash with the southern province, and then the Heineken Champions Cup pool games against Wasps and Toulouse.

“It’s an important time of the year the next few weeks, but you don’t look too far ahead, we’ve learned in the past not to do that,” O’Brien explains. “There’s lots of positives going forward. 

“There’s obviously a very good squad and there’s a lot of competition. But, there is a lot of room for improvement as well. When we get things right, it’s very good and when we’re just off a little bit, we make life difficult for ourselves. That is the exciting part, there is so much more in us.”

O’Brien is expected to start against Munster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Last weekend’s win over Connacht was a real statement of intent from the defending Pro14 and European champions, and they go into the round six clash with their southern rivals off the back of three straight wins.

A derby fixture in front of 44,000 at the Aviva Stadium will naturally be a step-up in intensity, but is seen as the perfect warm-up ahead of the serious business which begins on Friday week with the visit of Wasps to Dublin.

“Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing — it’s about us, preparing ourselves to be the best we can be when we go out at the weekend,” O’Brien said of Munster. “These games are always exciting for both clubs, obviously, we’ll have a look at them today and tomorrow, see where their strengths and weaknesses are.”

There is also the prospect of coming up against a recently-departed team-mate at the Aviva Stadium. 

“Yeah, he’ll know a good bit about us obviously, and we’ll know a good bit about what he can do too,” he adds, speaking of Joey Carbery.

Will it be strange tackling someone you shared a dressing room with for so many years?

“No. Not at all to be honest.”

In fact, he’s looking forward to it: “Yeah, it’s just the way it is nowadays.

“Just don’t end up one-on-one with him. No forward wants to come up against any back one-on-one really, bar you have a touchline to work with.

“Everyone knows that he has great footwork, but you have to defend together, it’s like going out on any day. Nothing will change for us, we’ll stick to our defensive system and make sure none of their backs get a one-on-one hopefully.”

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