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O'Brien a 'live option' for Toulouse as Cullen praises centre's progress

The 22-year-old was man of the match in Saturday’s big Pro14 win over Ulster at the RDS.

Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS 

ANOTHER STANDOUT PERFORMANCE from Conor O’Brien has put the young centre firmly in contention for Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup showdown against Toulouse next week.

The 22-year-old was one of the shining lights in Leinster’s six-try, 40-7 dismissal of a depleted Ulster side at the RDS on Saturday evening, and Leo Cullen reserved special praise for O’Brien in his post-match assessment. 

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

O’Brien showed strength and agility to streak past four Ulster defenders for a fine individual score in the first half, and overall continued his excellent form with an all-action display.

Playing with the number 13 on his back, the Mullingar native regularly stood at inside centre — further evidence of his versatility — and combined with Noel Reid well throughout, displaying power in contact and smooth footwork and handling abilities.

With Robbie Henshaw, Joe Tomane and Fergus McFadden long-term injury absentees, and Rory O’Loughlin potentially required on the wing in the absence of the suspended James Lowe, O’Brien may have forced his way into the reckoning for Saturday’s crucial Pool 1 visit of Toulouse.

Having featured in all three of the Christmas inter-pros, O’Brien has certainly staked his claim in recent weeks and the first-half try against Ulster brought his tally to four in seven senior appearances this term.

The former Ireland U20 international, who was part of the 2016 squad that progressed to the U20 World Championship final, is not currently registered in Leinster’s 41-man Champions Cup squad, but the province have the option to add him for the final two pool games before Tuesday’s deadline.

“Definitely,” Cullen said, when asked if O’Brien was close to making next week’s squad.

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“It’s something we have been talking about quite a bit about with Conor. He’s definitely a live option for us. He’s a very strong ball carrier and he’s got a big left foot as well.

“He’s getting better all the time and learning and understanding what is required of him. We’re trying to test him out again and going back to that training environment, I think it is important with Stuart [Lancaster] and Felipe [Contepomi], the work that they are putting in with a lot of those younger players, we hope pays off when they get their opportunity.

It’s something we will consider for sure before Tuesday’s deadline.

After making his Leinster debut against Glasgow Warriors last season, O’Brien has really seized his opportunity this year, starting five games and coming off the bench against Benetton and during last week’s defeat to Munster at Thomond Park.

“I saw a lot of Conor when he was with the Ireland U20s and I thought he was one of the standouts then,” Cullen added.

“He needs to understand that we have confidence, so when we put him in there, we think he is ready. So he just needs to back himself now because he has lots of ability and we have got a lot confidence in him.

“It’s another positive step for him today to make sure he is comfortable in this arena. But yeah, he is a player with a huger amount of potential and ability. He’s getting there, gradually.”

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Ryan Bailey

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