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Sean O'Brien: 'My opinion hasn't changed, we could have won the '17 series 3-0'

The Irish Lion lifts the lid on how his extraordinary self-belief helped him reach great heights in his career.

Sean O'Brien

HE IS NOT a score-settler by nature but if something needs to be said then Sean O’Brien won’t be shy. We heard it for ourselves four years ago, the Irishman believing the 2017 Lions could have whitewashed the All Blacks. So far, so straightforward.

It wasn’t long before complications arrived – Warren Gatland, deliverer of one or two opinions of his own over the years, taking great umbrage that one of his own wasn’t penning him a love letter. A counter attack ensued, Gatland saying O’Brien’s point lacked credibility.

He didn’t mind that, O’Brien. In fact, the only thing that bothered him was that Rob Howley got hit in the crossfire. “I like Rob and wish I hadn’t phrased things quite the way I did,” O’Brien says now. A phone call to Howley swiftly sorted things out. Straight talker one week, diplomat the next.

Four years on, he’s not going to retrace his steps in their entirety. And yet he stands by the core tenet of his 2017 message.

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“I know it caused controversy at the time but my opinion hasn’t changed, we could have won that series 3-0,” says O’Brien.

“When you look at the players we had – there was so much world-class talent in the squad, enough to have won all the Tests. I know all about the history, how the Lions have only won seven Tests or something like that in New Zealand over the years.

sean-obrien-with-ngani-laumape-and-kieran-read O'Brien in action during the 2017 series. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“But look at what has happened to New Zealand since 2017. They’re still a brilliant team. But we (Ireland) beat them in 2018; South Africa beat them down there in 2018, Argentina had their win last year, England destroyed them in the (2019) World Cup.

“Think about it. The Lions not only had the best of England but also Ireland, Scotland and Wales. That’s where I was coming from; we had the players to do it. I didn’t intend to insult or undermine anyone by saying that. I certainly don’t want to do that this time because Warren’s a good coach, the right man to lead this tour. But do I still think we could have won 3-0? Yeah, I do.”

He thinks the 2021 tourists can win, too, and up until a year ago, he still harboured hopes of being one of them even though at 34, and after a career plagued with injury, it was never a realistic ambition.

At least that’s how we saw it.

He’s different, of course. From an early age, he possessed this raging desire to be better than the rest; to not only win the respect of his peers but also the biggest prizes. Initially reticent when he broke through in Leinster, it seemed unlikely that Brian O’Driscoll, of all people, would take him under his wing.

After all O’Driscoll, by this stage, was BOD, Ireland captain, ‘Brand O’Driscoll’; O’Brien an unknown kid from Tullow. Yet in their own way they each had periods when they were the best of their breed, fanatically determined characters whose bravery was never open to question, and not just in physical terms.

“Mentally, I used to love the big occasion,” says O’Brien. “Like, I remember the 2012 Heineken Cup final; I hadn’t had a great season up until that point and had been getting plenty of stick in the media but going into that game (against Ulster), I just knew I’d play well. I’d worked with Enda McNulty (the Leinster and later Ireland sports psychologist) and he’d help clear away a bit of the fog.

“The way I looked at things was simple: I wanted to be the best player in the world. So nothing fazed me. A big crowd? Great, that got me buzzing. Tough opposition? Even better, I liked the idea of that. I didn’t doubt myself.”

But others did. In 2013, when the Lions were in Australia, Gatland left him out of the match-day squad for the first Test. “And I remember going back to my room, crying,” says O’Brien, showing that this tough, uncompromising player is also flesh. He hurts. A conversation with Graham Rowntree, the Lions forwards coach on that tour, soothed the wound.

sean-obrien O'Brien was dejected to miss out on the first Test. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Gatland, interestingly, didn’t have much to say. “Warren can be like that; he keeps his distance. His man-management is one of his strengths but he can be quiet. It means that when he speaks, it has an effect.”

The only words he heard Gatland say at the meeting to announce the team for the decisive third Test were limited. “Number seven, Sean O’Brien; I tuned out after that. I was like, ‘yes, this is my chance’.”

So, by the time Gatland got down the team sheet to ‘number 13, Jonathan Davies’, O’Brien was lost in his own private thoughts. It was only when he saw O’Driscoll’s face as they left the function room that he realised his friend had been dropped. “I went to his room straight away,” says O’Brien. “You could see what it meant. I was devastated for him.”

Heartache is inevitable in a career of such length, yet after delivering words of sympathy and paying his respect, O’Brien quickly realised something else. Yes, this was a humiliation for a competitor like O’Driscoll, but athletes have to be cold. A series still had to be won.

british-and-irish-lionss-conor-murray-and-brian-odriscoll O'Driscoll was famously dropped for the final Test. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

If there’s a lesson there for the players on this year’s tour, particularly the Irish ones, it’s this. “You have to do a job. You can’t go in there into a Lions tour or match thinking such and such is better than you; that you’re lucky to be there, that you don’t deserve your place. You have to believe in yourself.

“That doesn’t mean you have to be cocky, loud or brash. As an Irish person, you wouldn’t get away behaving like that because your family and friends wouldn’t be long telling you to cop on. There’s no harm being modest, but inside, in your head, like, that’s where you have to think that you’re the best player.”

It’s one of the reasons he expects Tadhg Beirne to be wearing the No6 jersey when the Tests begin. “Tadhg’s a born competitor; I remember when he was at Leinster, things might get a bit spiky between us at training. I liked that; he mightn’t have known it at the time, but I liked the fact he wasn’t prepared to take a backward step. You need that (attitude) and he has it. He’s a Test starter for sure.”

Three other Irish players are shoo-ins: Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray, the new captain. Then there’s Iain Henderson, the only Irish player involved in the squad for today’s game against the Gauteng Lions; Bundee Aki, Jack Conan. “For me, there’s no reason why all seven can’t make the (match-day) 23,” says O’Brien. “Like, why not? They’re all good players. It’s about taking your chance.”

tadhg-beirne-celebrates-scoring-their-fourth-try O'Brien feels Beirne should start the Tests. Source: ©INPHO

Four years ago, he did. A player who hoarded trophies at Leinster, felt a ferocious, yearning desire to leave his mark on the 2017 tour. His recall on the try that he’ll forever be associated with is impressive, how Liam Williams was right not to kick the ball out of play after Anthony Watson had passed to him deep inside the Lions 22.

He remembers hoping Williams would take on Kieran Read and by the time the Welshman was whizzing past Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams, O’Brien was on his way, slaloming in between retreating All Blacks as Williams was dragged down by Israel Dagg.

He saw Jonathan Davies arrive in support and adjusted his line of running to sense where the ball may end up, watching on as Davies and Elliot Daly exchanged passes before accelerating into a gap, unleashing a raucous scream to let the Welshman know he was free on his inside. He’ll certainly never score a better try. Perhaps the Lions won’t, either.

Yet when it comes to his favourite memories from two tours, one that stands out is from a night out.

He hadn’t slept after winning that third Test in 2013 and a lot of empty glasses were visible by the time he headed up to bed, a glance at his watch telling him it was 6am as he pressed the button of the elevator. When the door opened, Stuart Lancaster breezed out into the lobby, looking considerably fresher than the man about to head up.

Panicking ‘like a kid caught doing something wrong by a schoolteacher’ O’Brien spoke before Lancaster had a chance to. “I’ve already been to bed, I was just down for some fresh air,” he said. A bemused Lancaster smiled knowingly. “The best thing about it is Stuart wasn’t even a staff member of that tour; he was just there to watch the final Test.”

Knowing that kind of fun won’t be possible within a cocooned environment this time, he fears for the players. Avoiding boredom will be impossible, avoiding defeat will not. “There was a quote from Gats, when they were in Jersey, saying we want to go there and win. It’s the only attitude to have. Sure, South Africa are world champions. Sure, they’ve world class players. But so have we.”

Enough to win a series 3-0.

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Garry Doyle

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