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Sean O'Brien: It would be huge honour to captain Ireland, but if it's not to be I'll soldier on

The flanker is not often spoken of as captaincy material, but would jump at the chance if it was offered.

WHEN IT COMES down to it, Sean O’Brien doesn’t really mind who Joe Schmidt decides to name as Paul O’Connell’s successor as Ireland captain.

The flanker counts O’Connell among a trio of the best captains he has ever played under (alongside Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll), but moves to diminish the importance of the position a little, calling it ‘only a word after your name’.

Sean OÕBrien

Of course, when the honour is bestowed upon you, the view from the top of the class is different. O’Brien laughs as he says he was not consulted or canvassed by Schmidt about leadership matters this winter. But as a certain starter, a world class flanker and a man whose work-rate and standards command the respect of all his peers, the 28-year-old should not be counted out as serious skipper material.

“It’d be a huge honour, obviously, to captain your country, to lead your country would be a massive deal,” O’Brien said in Leinster’s UCD base today.

“I dreamt, a few years ago, of playing for Ireland, but it would be a massive bonus.”

O’Brien hasn’t figured as prominently as some in the captaincy conversation as some of his team-mates. That could be down, in part, to his injury profile, his quiet style of leadership or the downright straightforwardness of the way he speaks. Who knows?

“That word beside your name would be nice,” O’Brien adds, “but if it’s not to be, I’ll soldier on and keep doing what I do. I haven’t thought about it much and I’m not going to.”

It would be an honour to be asked. There’d be a great sense of pride about it. I suppose it’s only a word after your name, nothing would change for me if I was captain. I try and do the same job as I’d do if I was in the team, leading (by example) that way. 

“The team is full of leaders anyway and the squad is full of leaders, so not a whole lot will change. Whoever does get it, he’ll be backed by a lot of support from management and players. Everyone will try to make each other’s job as easy as possible.”

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Leinster’s Sean O'Brien

The Tullow Tank has naturally found himself doing a bit more off-field mentoring of late as his supposed understudy at Leinster, Josh van der Flier, has gone from strength to strength in a fractured campaign for O’Brien. The Carlow man jokes that he is killing his jersey rival with kindness, but sees a formidable back row talent in the making:

“I’m taking him for dinner and lunches and stuff, keeping him sweet,” O’Brien says with a laugh.

“Jaysus, he’s been flying. He’s one of those players that has a bit of everything in his game and he’s after taking his opportunity brilliantly — he‘s a great young lad, someone who has a good head on his shoulders. He’s going to be a phenomenal player for us.

“Josh knows how to play rugby, that’s for sure. He’ll do it his own way. Any piece of advice he needs, he can come to me and ask, but he’s his own man and plays rugby in a very good, positive way.”

Sean O'Brien Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Van der Flier is the sort of young talent that helped sway O’Brien to commit his long-term (or as long-term as rugby can allow) future to Ireland and Leinster. The Tullow Tank agreed a three-year deal before Christmas in a welcome swell against the tide of players looking abroad.

A lay-off with an inner-ear issue around that time has kept O’Brien fresh over the punishing winter period. Today though, just three weeks out from the Six Nations, the back row appears to be in as good a shape as he has ever been. Sitting lean and healthy “with no ill effects” from the vestibular impairment, he speaks with a humble tone about his own captaincy prospects. Yet when moving to the big picture of why he is planting his roots in Leinster, O’Brien sounds every bit the ambassador-come-motivational speaker that great captains become over time.

“I was brought up through the whole system here and created something special with what we’ve done over the last number of years.

I believe there’s special days ahead with the talent we have coming through. I wanted to drive the province on and make sure we leave it in good hands when we eventually finish up in many years to come.
“I believe this is still the place to win trophies and that’s what I’m going to try and do.”

Captain or not, he’ll be leading from the front, setting the tone for province and country.

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