THIS STAGE OF the season is a particularly stressful one for many individual players as they face up to contract negotiations and the possibility of finalising transfers.
Ireland and Leinster back row Sean O’Brien is one among the pack.
It can often be an overlooked factor in a player’s poor displays, with doubts and concerns over their futures dominating their thoughts. Focus is taken away from the weekly preparation and performances can suffer.
A high-profile example of the negative effect these off the pitch issues can have on a player came in the display of Mamuka Gorgodze for Montpellier against Ulster on Saturday. The Georgian is currently being linked with a switch to Toulon at the end of the season and his focus was clearly missing.
Knock-ons, uncharacteristic missed tackles and a surprising lack of aggression were the signs that Gorgodze’s mind was elsewhere.
However, in Ireland we had a demonstration that ongoing contract negotiations and doubts over one’s future don’t always result in poor performances. Sean O’Brien was again excellent for Leinster in the win over Castres and seems to be unaffected by his own ongoing situation.
Leinster team manager Guy Easterby agrees that every player is different, but says the Tullow Tank is always reliable.
“Our hope is that within this environment that there are no issues. It doesn’t seem to be doing Sean any harm. Obviously, we would only look at him and the way he is playing. He has been outstanding for us. I didn’t see the Montpellier game – it was on the same time as us at the weekend. I’m only looking from within. I don’t know what Gorgodze is doing.”
“I don’t know what type of guy he is but I know what type of guy Sean O’Brien is. I know we will get 100% out of him every single week no matter what is going on outside of the pitch.”
O’Brien was once again in superb form for Leinster at the RDS. ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne.
As rumours of a switch to France for O’Brien persist, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt spoke over the weekend about his concern that the back row would face longevity issues if he decides to go through with a move.
The former Leinster boss implied that O’Brien’s explosive style, coupled with the increased playing time in France, could result in earlier burnout than if he remained in Ireland. Easterby admitted that he shares those worries.
“You only have to look at Jonny Sexton’s situation with the amount of rugby he is playing already compared to a Jamie Heaslip or a Seanie, who have come back in the last couple of weeks but haven’t played too much.
“I think there is a real attritional nature to the French rugby and it is fairly full on every week. I am not saying our league [the Pro12] isn’t but with the management programs, players are managed. Does it make a difference? I’m sure it does for longevity, but who can tell how long that is; is that six months or three years?
“It is difficult to tell. Sean is definitely a power athlete and with that comes the soreness after every single game. For him, he is learning how to manage his body best and that in itself will bring longevity.”
The hope remains that Irish rugby will not have to find out if the foreboding words of Schmidt and Easterby come to be true. Confirmation that the IRFU have been in talks with O’Brien over a new deal were extremely welcome last week, and they will be desperate to tie one of their most important players down for the coming years.
O’Brien’s excellent form in the last two weeks for Leinster against the Ospreys and Castres have highlighted how world-class a player Ireland have on their hands. If the 26-year-old can be secured on a long-term deal, he will be freed to concentrate even further on putting in game-winning displays for province and country.