'That's where you're getting so much punishment - three massive free shots'

Sean O’Brien is making his way back from a shoulder injury and wants jackaling players to be protected.

THE RETIREMENT OF Sam Warburton at the age of 29 in July, just over a year out from the World Cup, was a jarring reminder of the brutal reality of professional rugby.

One of the greatest back rows the game has seen, the Welshman was forced to admit that his body simply could not take any more of the physical punishment.

Consistently brave for the Lions, Wales and Cardiff Blues, Warburton so often put himself into positions that contributed to him suffering more than 20 serious injuries during his career.

[image alt="Sean O'Brien and Sam Warburton celebrate with the trophy" src="" width="630" height="460" credit-source="INPHO" caption="Sean%20O'Brien%20played%20with%20Warburton%20on%20two%20Lions%20tours." class="alignnone" /end]

Chief among them was the familiar sight of Warburton jackaling over the breakdown, pouncing for a turnover or slowing down the opposition’s possession.

In a revealing interview with the UK’s Times last week, Warburton discussed the toll of professional rugby, suggesting that players could potentially be limited to 25 games a season, as well as speaking about a possible reduction of contact during training.

Warburton also highlighted the need for rugby “to protect the jackalers” and it’s a point that Ireland and Leinster back row Sean O’Brien can relate to as he works towards his latest comeback from injury.

O’Brien had shoulder surgery in April, meaning he missed Leinster’s double-winning success months after a hip injury had forced him to sit out Ireland’s Grand Slam victory.

As an openside flanker like Warburton, tasked with attacking the opposition’s possession post-tackle, O’Brien believes that referees need to understand exactly how exposed jackalers are.

“You could be in a poach position and you’ll take one big hit or someone will smash you and you still survive it, and you take another one and you’ll survive it and there’s still no whistle gone. And it’s the third lad that does the damage to you,” says O’Brien.

“That’s where you’re getting so much punishment – three massive free shots and there’s still no penalty.

“I don’t know what has to be done around that area but definitely there’s something about different styles of refereeing. Some referees do get you in trouble a lot, especially when you’re in that poach, that vulnerable position.”

[image alt="Sean O'Brien" src="" width="630" height="431" class="alignnone" /end]

O’Brien laughs and says, “Oh, I feed it back to him alright” when he’s asked if he attempts to relate his view to match referees during games.

“It’s very hard,” he continues. “When you’re saying to him, ‘How long do I have to survive this?’ it’s sometimes five or six seconds when you look back, and in five or six seconds there could be five lads piling into you.

“It’s one against three or four usually and they’re smacking you at force, you’re in a stable position. That’s where people can get hurt.

“My point is, at times, how many do you want us to survive?”

Warburton suggested “something like the opposition team cannot commit more than two players in a ruck,” but while O’Brien doesn’t have specific thoughts on exactly how, he would like to see something done “to protect us a bit more.”

For now, he is thankful to be closing in on a return from his shoulder injury, which he says probably dated all the way back to the 2017 Lions tour. 

Tullow man O’Brien has endured many spells on the sidelines due to injuries in recent years, missing big moments for Leinster and Ireland, but he takes issue with perceptions of him as an injury-prone player.

“For me, I think people go, ‘He’s always injured.’

“They don’t see what you’re doing on the field to your body. That’s just part of the game and part of your make-up, whatever way you play. That’s what makes you the player you are, I suppose.”

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Rehabbing from his shoulder surgery has taken up much of O’Brien’s pre-season and he has yet to be part of team training with Leinster, although he hopes to take that step “next week or the week after.”

His head coach, Leo Cullen, has said Leinster hope to have O’Brien back in Pro14 action within the “first few rounds,” but the flanker himself is still not sure when exactly that will be.

O’Brien’s Leinster team-mates are certainly excited by the prospect of having him on the pitch doing what he does best, particularly after he endured the pain of having to watch their Champions Cup and Pro14 successes last season.

“Listen, he’s going to be like a caged animal when he gets back on the field,” says fullback Rob Kearney. “That will be brilliant for us, it will bring a huge amount of energy to the squad and it will give us another impetus going forward.

“If he’s back and fit and playing, he’ll be a huge driver in improving the team.”

In terms of his strength and conditioning, O’Brien feels “in better shape than I have been in my life,” and says he will return to rugby with real confidence in his body.

“I don’t have big loose pieces in my shoulder that are going to impede me when I hit something,” says O’Brien. “That’s one thing, that’s all tidied up.

[image alt="Sean O’Brien" src="" width="630" height="414" class="alignnone" /end]

“The hip issue that I had, that’s stronger than ever, so I got that tidied up. I’m probably stronger in every asset.”

While he could be forgiven for eyeing up the November Tests and even the World Cup next year, the 51-times capped back row insists that Leinster is the only thing on his mind for now.

“I want to get back playing with Leinster, first and foremost, whenever that might be, and take it as it comes to me then. That’s all I want to do – play a few games and see where I’m at.”

Management and technology consultancy BearingPoint yesterday signed a five-year deal to become Leinster Rugby’s Official Innovation Partner.

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