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O'Brien loving journey from half-time mini to big-hitting centre

The powerful young centre is happy to defer to Robbie Henshaw, for now.

CONOR O’BRIEN DOESN’T need any dose of perspective or harsh reality to ground him. He is acutely aware of how far he has come.

Not just in the short-term, with a try-scoring man-of-the-match display against Ulster among his five starts this season, but in the long-term thanks to a remarkable sense of symmetry delivered in his European debut the following week.

Conor O'Brien and Andrew Porter celebrate after the game O'Brien and Porter celebrate the win over Toulouse. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

After his energetic late cameo against Toulouse, the powerful centre was reminded that it was not his first time taking the field during a visit from the French giants.

He was a Mullingar Mini, unleashed during the interval of a 20-13 Leinster win over Toulouse on January 12 2008 — 11 years to the day before he faced the same team as a senior.

“I got four minutes both days. I suppose it was progress, in a way,” he says with a laugh.

A smile is never far away from O’Brien as he sits for media duties in Leinster’s UCD base. Some young professionals can appear as though the weight of the world is planted on their shoulders, but the Westmeath man is more than comfortable as he chats away. Whether the subject be an illustrious rival, his development or the frenetic excitement involved ahead of such a pivotal European match.  

“I kind of knew I was coming on after 77 minutes, and sure like you’re kind of all over the place.

“It’s such a crazy week. I only found out late in the week that I was on the bench, so it was mad like with everyone sending you good luck texts and everyone’s real happy for you. It’s easy to get distracted and listen to all of that and be like, ‘I’m a great lad here now being on the bench for a Champions Cup game’. But you kind of have to knuckle down a bit and focus…

“I haven’t been a sub too much when I’ve been playing. But when you do, you’re coming into the game and it’s unusual because mentally you’re not switched on to start the game but at the same time,  you have to be ready to come in whenever you’re needed.

“So you’re kind of edge on the bench. I like to watch the games as well,” he adds with a slightly guilty look.

“You’d be down trying to warm up but I’d be down the back (watching) near the try-line or whatever. I wasn’t needed – well, I wasn’t needed until the 77th minute or whatever – it was class performance and then when I got on sure I didn’t even touch the ball I think.

“I fell off Cheslin Kolbe, that was about the height of it.”

11 years earlier, O’Brien would have cooled down after his RDS run-out and perhaps caught a glimpse of Felipe Contepomi capping off the win with a drop-goal. Now, as a 22-year-old, Contepomi’s influence has grown much stronger.

“Felipe was reminding me at the start of the year saying, ‘look, you can work on your weaknesses, but people kind of neglect their strengths then as well.’


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Conor O'Brien O'Brien in training yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“That kind of clicked with me because I was focusing so much on developing my passing and kicking and things like that. Whereas my ball-carrying and getting a good defence going (are my strengths), I’m always working with himself and Hugh Hogan on D, trying to tidy up things and get rid of bad habits.”

Felipe would say, ‘you’ll make mistakes, just forget about them and learn from there,’” says the centre.

“As long as the decision or the reason why you did it was right, the execution will get better with time. That’s definitely something that himself and myself were working on recently.”

Among the player pool, Robbie Henshaw is naturally a game-shaping influence on O’Brien too. Not because of their shared Westmeath upbringing, but down to their physique and powerful carrying threat through midfield.

“He’s Athlone and I’m Mullingar so there’s a bit of rivalry there already,” he jokes, “we’re both footballers from Westmeath playing rugby.

“He’s a really good role model to have, without sounding too cringey. We are a similar enough build and our attributes are similar, strengths and stuff. So he’s the perfect person to have there to look at in training. When he is running round you in training you learn fairly quick to stop him or try your best to stop him. It’s unbelievable to have him there and he’s a lovely lad as well.”

Role models and lovely lads are all well and good, but a time will soon come when European weeks carry a touch of expectation on top of nervous anticipation for O’Brien. Then Henshaw will be nothing more than a rival, a hurdle between him and where he wants to be. For now, though, O’Brien is thrilled just to have worked his way into the conversation.

“I mean, he was ‘the man in my way’ when I first came into the academy.

“I suppose it’s a good conversation to have; that you’re talking about me trying to overtake Robbie Henshaw. (I’m) trying to get up to that level. I wouldn’t have considered (that) until you’d asked me these type of questions.

“To get picked for Champions Cup,… I was playing for Clontarf last year and stuff like that!”

Conor O'Brien celebrates scoring their third try The Mullingar man celebrates his try against Ulster. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He adds: “you have to be realistic. Robbie Henshaw is a Lion and so you can’t be disappointed when he comes back in and pushes you out of the team.”

The Ireland and Lions centre, of course, did just ahead of the win over Wasps. But while he is off in Portugal with Ireland, O’Brien will be back blasting into tackles and putting a smile on the faces in the RDS crowd when Scarlets come to visit on Friday.

At half-time, a crop of minis will run out in his footsteps, literal and metaphorical, and the circle might just start all over again for one of them.

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Sean Farrell

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