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'I know the New Zealand back row hugely respect Sean O'Brien'
Warren Gatland and his Lions coaches expect a big impact from the Leinster openside.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

MANY HAD BACKED Sean O’Brien to push Lions captain Sam Warburton hard for the seven shirt on this tour of New Zealand, but in the end there wasn’t really a tough decision for Warren Gatland to make.

O’Brien simply couldn’t be left out for tomorrow’s first Test.

Sean O'Brien with Damian McKenzie Dan Sheridan / INPHO O'Brien is back on top form. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Tullow man has been superb over the last two weekends against the Crusaders and Māori All Blacks, with his breakdown influence growing by the second, his ball-carrying as dynamic as it’s ever been and his communication utterly ear drum splitting.

Ref mics were made for listening in to O’Brien’s incessant chatter, his demands on referees, his encouragement of team-mates and his challenges to opponents.

Lions boss Warren Gatland has spoken of how the 30-year-old has been an integral part of the tourists’ leadership group, with his volume levels important in what is a relatively quiet squad.

First Test captain Peter O’Mahony is “a very quiet person,” according to attack coach Rob Howley, but O’Brien is a different proposition.

“You certainly hear Sean, I can tell you!” said Howley with a smile on Friday afternoon in Auckland.

The All Blacks have always rated O’Brien as a world-leading player and their surprise to see him ommitted from Ireland’s squad in Chicago back in November was telling.

“Sean is a very motivational person,” said Howley. “His performances on the field have suggested he’s back to his best. He’s very powerful, he’s very dynamic, he’s very strong.

“I know the New Zealand back row hugely respect Sean O’Brien. When you’ve got a New Zealand back row as experienced as they are respecting a player I think that says a lot about the player himself.

Sean O'Brien Dan Sheridan / INPHO O'Brien is in superb physical condition. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“He leads by his actions and his words. He’s one of the few players who can, and I’m sure that he’ll have a very potent display on the weekend.”

O’Brien will throw himself into every battle with sheer gusto and we can be sure that Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read will have their hands full dealing with him.

O’Brien had injury issues again this season – playing just eight times for Leinster – but he managed to start all five of Ireland’s Six Nations game, an important marker for the Lions coaches.

Hamstring and calf issues saw him miss the end of Leinster’s campaign and delayed his first appearance for the Lions on this tour, but he looks all the better for the chance to train hard without games every single weekend.

While Warburton’s time out with injury has seemingly left him lacking fitness and sharpness, O’Brien does look like he is heading back to his best form. Certainly, he is athletically in the best shape he’s been in for some time.

And asked what qualities he had looked at specifically when selecting O’Brien to face the All Blacks tomorrow, Lions boss Gatland joked about O’Brien’s injury record.

“Staying fit for a start, he’s normally injured by now!

“Look, he hasn’t had a lot of steals but he’s got over the ball a lot on this tour. His carrying has been phenomenal.

Sean O'Brien Dan Sheridan / INPHO O'Brien is on his second Lions tour. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s given us more go-forward. He’s given us voice and energy on the pitch and experience and he understands the game. He’s been outstanding.”

Warburton lies in reserve on the Lions bench, ready to be sprung in the second half, but O’Brien will lead the onslaught at Eden Park from the off.

He is part of a balanced back row alongside Taulupe Faletau and captain Peter O’Mahony, and Gatland is confident that his pack are a strong enough unit to cause the All Blacks problems.

“I think Faletau’s been exceptional,” said Gatland. “When you pick a forward pack, sometimes it’s not about having the most explosive individuals in a forward pack, you need a bit of glue – Peter O’Mahony  is sometimes that glue.

His numbers are good, and George Kruis is like that too. Maro [Itoje] is explosive, Alun Wyn can carry, but George doesn’t take the ball up but his numbers are big, he’ll hit rucks for us and do the graft.

“You’re picking a pack where there are good rugby players but you need players who have good numbers at rucks and certain tackles are made and being accurate. So I think there’s a good balance at the moment.”

O’Brien will be expected to bring the most momentum-shifting impact of the lot, though, and it would be no surprise for him to show exactly why the All Blacks respect him.

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