Emotional O'Brien returning to his best as sun begins to set on Leinster career

Leo Cullen hailed the flanker’s ‘exceptional’ contribution against Toulouse.

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium 

IF THIS WAS Seán O’Brien’s last appearance here, it was a hell of a performance to sign off on.

Still putting his body on the line to make important tackles in the dying embers of a semi-final already won, the Tullow Tank looked a lot more like himself out there after a deeply frustrating run of injuries. 

Sean O'Brien with Charlie Faumuina and Jerome Kaino O'Brien made 12 carries against Toulouse. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

O’Brien carried and tackled himself to a standstill against Toulouse, putting in a huge shift at openside, as Leo Cullen’s Leinster dominated, controlled and suffocated the Top 14 leaders to book their place in next month’s Heineken Champions Cup final. 

The defending champions were sharp in their decision-making and execution throughout under clear blue skies in Dublin, producing moments of outstanding quality, while the forwards set a tempo and level of intensity and physicality the French were simply unable to contend with.

O’Brien was central to that in the number seven jersey on what was just his sixth start for the province during this injury-disrupted season, getting through mountains of work on both sides of the ball during a tireless and impactful 80-minute display. 

The 32-year-old, who will depart for London Irish this summer, was second only to the outstanding James Ryan in the carry charts with 12, while he made 14 tackles as Leinster enjoyed a telling superiority in the contact area, just as they had done in the RDS back in January.

O’Brien’s form and fitness has taken on added significance in recent weeks, of course, with Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier both sidelined indefinitely, and the sight of the flanker’s old spark returning here will have been a welcome one for Cullen and Leinster. 

“Seánie is an unbelievable competitor, he has worked incredibly hard to get back from his injury,” the Leinster head coach said of O’Brien’s performance, who brought no shortage of vigour and intent to the contest. 

“You can see what it means to Seanie, the way he plays. He physically throws everything he has into his performances. I thought he was really exceptional today.

“It’s not just performance, it’s how he leads the group and how he talks in the week. How he understands the threats the opposition is going to pose on both sides of the ball.

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“In terms of dominating that contact area, he’s one of the best players I think to have played the game, certainly Irish guys. He’s showing again what he’s capable of.”

Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien celebrate after the game The flanker was emotional at full-time. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

While Johnny Sexton was named man of the match for a typically peerless and guiding display at out-half, O’Brien was one of a number of strong candidates for the award, including Jack Conan, Scott Fardy and Robbie Henshaw.

His performance here bodes well for Leinster’s pursuit of the double-double, with their seismic showdown against Saracens to come in three weekends, while there is also the small matter of the Pro14 run-in to come too.

“Certainly aspects of it were good,” O’Brien said of the collective performance. “We said during the week that we need to make sure we’re in control all the time and we did that for large periods of the game, built a lot of pressure and got a few scores.”

Speaking afterwards, the Ireland international became emotional when asked about his immediate post-match feelings, as his time in Leinster blue nears an end. 

“It’s a tough day for me here actually today,” he added. “The last game in the Aviva for me probably…so nice to finish with a win anyway.”


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Ryan Bailey

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