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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 19 March, 2019
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'Of course I would be pissed off': O'Brien eyes return to Ireland squad

The Leinster flanker is set to feature in his fifth straight game this weekend, as he continues to build up his fitness.

SEÁN’S O’BRIEN’S NO frills directness is as authentic as it is refreshing. He tells it how he sees it, in the knowledge that when on top of his game, there is nobody better in the country. It’s not complacency, just confidence in his ability, and a proven track record encompassing 56 Test matches. 

Sean O'Brien O'Brien pictured at Leinster HQ yesterday. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

He knows the qualities he can bring to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad, and the head coach knows it too. The flanker is not concerned over a lack of game time, or match sharpness, or intense competition in the back row ranks, but he’ll be pissed off if he doesn’t receive the call.

“Of course I will, yeah,” he says. “If I didn’t get the email, I would want to know why.”

A message from HQ hadn’t dropped into his inbox as of Tuesday morning, but O’Brien wasn’t going to lose any sleep last night agonising over whether his name would be in Schmidt’s squad for the November internationals or not. 

“I’m not worried, I don’t think,” the 31-year-old insisted. “It is what it is. I think he [Schmidt] knows what I can bring. I think I know what I can do. That’s the decision the coaches will make.”

It would come as a surprise if O’Brien is not in the panel for the games against Italy, Argentina, New Zealand and USA named by Schmidt at some stage today, even if he is only four games into his injury comeback.

After a complicated road back from hip and shoulder injuries, O’Brien has returned in peak physical condition, making his long-awaited comeback off the bench in the inter-pro win over Connacht, before starting at the back of the scrum against Munster.

The Tullow native came off the bench in the opening rounds of Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup title defence, playing 62 minutes in Toulouse on Sunday following the early withdrawal of Josh van der Flier, and he is set for more game time against Benetton this weekend.

“I’m happy with my progress,” he continued. “Last weekend was another step up again. I did some good things, some poor things that just weren’t sharp enough. Other than that I’m going in the right direction. It’s about getting time.

“Hopefully this weekend get more time and see where I am at then. I am heading in the right direction rather than going the other way.”

The last time O’Brien played four games in a row was 2012 — “yeah, between player management and whatever else” — while his last appearance in an Ireland jersey came 12 months ago against Argentina.

Leinsters Sean O'Brien O'Brien has played 202 minutes in the last four weeks of action. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Those debilitating injuries and setbacks meant he missed all of last year’s Six Nations, as well as the successful summer tour to Australia, and in that time Dan Leavy took advantage of O’Brien’s absence, as well as the cruel injury blow dealt to Van der Flier in Paris, to lay claim to the number seven jersey.

“I wouldn’t be saying ‘oh it is because I haven’t got much game time,’” he adds, when the issue of minutes was put to him ahead of November.

“The only way that I will get up to speed is to get as much game time as possible. It’s a long time since I strung two 60s (minutes) together. The last few weeks has been a big positive for me.”

Stuart Lancaster, meanwhile, is intrigued to see what Schmidt’s plans are for the back row this Autumn.

“It’ll be interesting to see what Joe’s thoughts are, Ireland’s back row stocks now are pretty strong aren’t they?” the Leinster senior coach mused.

“When Seánie was playing for the Lions, no doubt he was the out and out first choice, but since then Josh has come back, Dan’s back this week, you’ve also got Stander and O’Mahony, and Jack Conan coming through, it’s competitive with Ireland.

“He’s (O’Brien) getting better game by game, the more games he gets the better he gets, the more training minutes the better, his instincts are always very good, you’re not struggling there with experience and instinct.

It’ll be interesting to see, this is a big weekend for him, he played more than we were thinking at the weekend, with Josh coming off, but he got through that fine, and he’ll play this weekend and it’s up to Joe.

“It’ll be interesting to see how he’ll marry that selection, because they’re going to leave Monday, I assume, to go to Chicago, then Argentina, then New Zealand, then USA, so I’d imagine there’s going to be a changing around during that period, you look at your options for the Six Nations and the World Cup.”

Whether or not O’Brien will be in the travelling party to Chicago next week, his immediate focus is on righting a few wrongs for Leinster this weekend, as the province return to Guinness Pro14 action in Italy [KO 3pm, eir Sport].

Not only are Leo Cullen’s side bidding to put their first defeat in 10 European games behind them when they face Benetton, but last season’s home loss to the Italian side still rankles with those involved on that humbling RDS night.

“Everyone wants to go to Benetton this weekend after what happened last year,” O’Brien states.

Sean O'Brien The flanker speaking to media yesterday. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“The other thing about it is the internationals lads, whoever is starting in the Argie week won’t be starting against Italy, so they’ll hardly want to go three weeks without a game. I definitely want to keep playing.

“It’s about getting back to what we’re best at and making sure we don’t make mistakes and put ourselves under pressure like we did last weekend [against Toulouse]. That’s probably going to be the big learning from it all.

“It will help reinforce the depth of the squad, a few lads will play who haven’t played in a couple of weeks so that will be good for us. I think last year we just didn’t physically turn up to that game [against Benetton]. That was a major part of last year. They’re a very good side, a really big pack.

“In November, we’ve previously done well when the internationals do go away and it will be a big step-up for everyone else and it is important for them to put the best foot forward.”

To move forward, Leinster have been looking back in recent days, with the learnings from that Pool 1 reversal at the Stade Ernest Wallon providing valuable lessons heading towards another important block of fixtures.

“Everyone made mistakes and mistakes that usually we wouldn’t make,” O’Brien, who came off the bench to score a first-half try, added.

“It was just a sense of panic at times and a lack of experience in knowing where you are and what you’re doing as well. And in that environment against that team with those players in their back three with an attacking mindset off turnovers, you can’t afford to do that.

“It’s going to be a valuable lesson for us, what went on at the weekend and how we get that right moving forward.”

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Ryan Bailey

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