'We're seeing the best of him' - O'Brien making his mark in New Zealand

All Blacks openside Sam Cane has big respect for the Irishman.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

SAM CANE AND SEAN O’Brien sat down for a good chat last weekend in Wellington after the Lions had levelled the series at 1-1.

The pair of opensides shared “a couple of yarns,” according to the Kiwi, as they showed each other respect after their on-pitch battle. Having kept their first Test jerseys as personal mementos, they also swapped shirts this time.

Jamie George and Sean O'Brien O'Brien has carried superbly for the Lions. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s an awesome bloke,” says Cane of the Irishman and he sounds as if he genuinely means it.

You see, the Kiwis have a lot of time for Sean O’Brien. He’s often one of the first name off their tongues when it comes to Irish rugby and the Lions, and this tour of New Zealand has underlined exactly why. O’Brien earns the respect the hard way.

He has been back somewhere close to his best and it would have been a disappointment for the neutral ahead of Saturday’s deciding Test had O’Brien been banned after his citing for striking Waisake Naholo.

The Lions are certainly feeling a little more confident now that the Tullow man will be in their seven shirt again, having had his citing dismissed.

“It’s brilliant to have him, he’s been playing really well,” says Johnny Sexton. “It was a relief to everyone in the squad when he got cleared. Obviously, we knew that there was nothing in it really.

“It was just unfortunate that it resulted in an injury but these things can happen and we’re delighted to have him for Saturday.”

Though O’Brien’s possible absence would have made life a little easier for the All Blacks, they will be motivated by the chance to go up against the very best again – a bracket in which they place the Lions’ openside.

Sean O'Brien and Tadhg Furlong O'Brien hits a tackle bag in training yesterday. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“The way he goes about his work is very impressive, he’s very competitive, he gets through a heck of a lot and he’s a physical player, so he’s been massive for them this tour,” says Cane.

Indeed, he has and it would be fair to push O’Brien forward as the Lions’ player of the tour so far.

Warren Gatland has been thrilled with his leadership, repeatedly underlining O’Brien’s importance to the squad as a speaker and lauding his ability to bring energy to those around him.

For those watching the games with even a passing interest, O’Brien’s influence is clear. Last weekend was the latest example, as he led the way with nine big carries and 12 powerful tackles.

There was the clever half break and offload to Sam Warburton in the first half, and lots of breakdown competition – even if O’Brien didn’t get the reward he was seeking.

Physically, the Leinster flanker is in the best nick he has been in for some time, allowing him to sprint at a pace we haven’t seen for a while and bring dynamic impacts for the full 80 minutes.

“We’ve seen that when Seanie is fit and he’s had a string of games, this is what he produces,” says Sexton, a man who knows the importance of putting together back-to-back games.

Sean O'Brien The All Blacks respect O'Brien. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s had a few injuries over the years but when you play like he does, you’re going to pick up a few injuries because he puts everything on the line when he plays.

“That’s what makes him the player he is, so you can’t say to him ‘rein it back a bit’ because then you don’t have the real Sean O’Brien.

“It’s just once he gets fit and gets those string of games together, it’s the same with every player. All you need is a run of games to find your best form.

“We’re seeing the best of him now.”

The exciting thing for Sexton, Gatland and all of the Lions is that there is a sense O’Brien will top this tour off with one final tour de force on Saturday at Eden Park.

The respectful Kiwis quite possibly fear the same thing.

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