EXPERIENCE HAS TAUGHT Sean O’Brien to manage his comeback from injury with an added degree of pragmatism as he continues to rehabilitate an uncomfortable hip problem.
The 30-year-old flanker hasn’t featured since the back-to-back victories over Exeter Chiefs before Christmas and has again been ruled out of Leinster’s inter-pro against Ulster this weekend.
O’Brien played through the injury in December but has been resting and rehabbing for the last number of weeks in the hope he will be fully fit and available for Leinster’s final two Champions Cup pool games later this month.
Working alongside the province’s medical staff, O’Brien continues to go through his rehabilitation programme but the stiffness in his hip means running remains a painful exercise.
“It’s coming along,” he says.
“It has improved in the last four or five days a good bit but not enough to be up for selection this week. See how it is the rest of the week and keep working on it.”
The Lions back-row continues: ”It’s like nearly having a tight muscle or something. It’s a bit of a strange one, there was no incident that I remember anyway. It’s just a funny one. I’m rehabbing away. I’m moving between a jog and three-quarters pace and it’s catching me. The faster I move the better it is.”
O’Brien eased fears over his fitness for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against France on 3 February.
“No, there shouldn’t be [any concern for the Six Nations]. I’m looking forward to hopefully being involved next week [against Glasgow] and we’ll take it from there.”
By his own admission, there was a time when he would have made himself available for this weekend out of desperation to get back out on the pitch, but O’Brien now understands the importance of waiting until he’s 100% again.
“You learn as you get on a little bit,” he explains. “If it was a final this weekend then yeah you could push it up but with what lies ahead as well you’d be in doubt or probably do something worse to it.
“I’ve taken my time and just made sure it’s right because there are loads of lads at the minute playing really well so there’s no point in me going out there 50% when there are lads that are playing at 100.
“You get a bit cuter and how to manage them and how to deal with them. When you’ve had a good few like I’ve had there’s certainly no point in rushing back because that’s when something else goes.
“Probably over the last four or five years I’ve realised that, some of those big injuries helped me think about things in a different manner. Not trying to push myself back. I’m probably a stubborn type fella anyway so I just think get working on it and get back but sometimes when you feel you’re right, you’re just not right to play at that level. It’s important you come back fully loaded and ready to rock.”
Without O’Brien, Leinster have made it six straight victories across the Pro14 and Champions Cup and the New Year’s Day win over Connacht saw Leo Cullen’s side enter 2018 in good shape in both competitions.
While the Pro14 and the visit of Ulster remains the focus for this weekend, attention will quickly turn to Europe ahead of the crucial round five clash with Glasgow Warriors at the RDS on Sunday week.
Leinster head into the final two rounds five points clear of Montpellier in Pool 3 and O’Brien admits the next couple of weeks will go along way to defining the province’s season.
“We’re in a different time now, with a different squad,” he says, when asked if there are similarities between this team and the Heineken Cup-winning ones of previous years.
“It’s probably a different culture in what we’ve developed now. There are lots of variables and lots of differences to when we were winning Heineken Cups. Are we in a good place? Yeah. We’re in a good place, we’ve built well, we’ve got a good squad.
“A lot of lads have got good experience at that level in European games. The only similarity in my eyes is that you take it one game at a time in Europe. You can’t really afford to slip up as it leaves you in a place where you’re trying to play catch up.
“We’ve done well in the first block of Europe and left ourselves in a good place but these next couple of weeks, and even this weekend leading into Europe, are going to define our season.”
But a lot of those youngers players — the likes of Luke McGrath, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Ross Byrne — are a year older and will have benefitted from the experience of losing two semi-finals last season?
“Yeah, that’s what I mean by lads have got experience from the last year. Some of those guys who played in those games will feel a little bit of hurt and disappointment and know what’s expected at that level. You look at that semi-final [against Clermont] and we had opportunities to win the game and we didn’t play well.
“There are lots of learning we can take from that and hopefully we have learned from that and we don’t have to learn again. It’s an exciting time in fairness. We’ve a good squad and everyone’s on the same page.
“I’m looking forward to the next few weeks.”
Sean O’Brien was in the RDS to launch Life Style Sports’ latest fan competition. Fans attending the next 4 home games should keep an eye out for the Life Style Sports stamped seats. If you find yourself in a special seat and are wearing the latest Leinster Rugby jersey, be sure to take a selfie with the stamp tagging @LifeStyleSportsRugby on Instagram to win a €50 gift card.
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