'Sean is a tough but fair player' - O'Brien boost is huge for the Lions

The Ireland openside will now prepare to perform on the biggest stage for the Lions.

Murray Kinsella reports from Queenstown

GIVEN THE PERFORMANCE he delivered on Saturday in Wellington, Sean O’Brien would have been high up in the list of players Warren Gatland would least have been able to deal with losing for the series decider next weekend.

O’Brien has been back to his dominant best on this tour, in the best physical shape he has been in for some time and clearly enjoying his rugby.

New Zealand Rugby All Blacks Lions O'Brien offloads to Warburton in the second Test. Mark Baker Mark Baker

More than once, Gatland has spoken about O’Brien’s leadership and volume levels in a group that is fairly quiet on the whole.

At the age of 30 and with one Lions tour already behind him, the Tullow man was always likely have a big impact on this Test series against the All Blacks if he could stay fit and that hasn’t been a problem for O’Brien in New Zealand.

His pace has been evident in moments such as the support line he ran for his brilliant try in the first Test or the chasing down of Richie Mo’unga in the win over the Crusaders.

His breakdown competition hasn’t lead to the turnover rewards he feels he has deserved, but O’Brien has been brilliant with ball in hand and muscular in defence too. Really, he’s been the complete back row for the Lions.

Gatland must have felt a little sense of dread, then, when news came through that Australian citing commissioner Scott Nowland felt that O’Brien’s challenge on Waisake Naholo in the second Test was worthy of a red card.

Referee Jerome Garces and his matchday TMO George Ayoub hadn’t had anything close to that reaction obviously, with O’Brien not even penalised on the day.

There was a case to answer here, however, with today’s judicial hearing in Wellington lasting close to three hours as the three-man Australian panel – including former Munster lock John Langford – went through every bit of video evidence and player submission available to them.

Ultimately, they couldn’t see any ground for O’Brien’s actions to be deemed foul play and they dismissed the citing complaint. It took time to get there, but the Lions certainly felt the panel’s decision was entirely justified.

Sean O'Brien celebrates winning O'Brien will be a key man in the third Test. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Joining O’Brien at today’s hearing were lawyer Max Duthie – who only linked up with the squad before the second Test – head coach Gatland and tour manager John Spencer.

“We’d like to thank the panel for their professional and diligent approach,” said Gatland after the hearing. “Sean is a tough but fair player and we are pleased that the panel dismissed the citing.”

It’s a massive boost to O’Brien personally too, particularly after he missed Ireland’s 2015 World Cup quarter-final due to a suspension for striking Pascal Papé, that verdict reached after another hellishly long hearing in Cardiff.

Watching on from the sidelines that day as Ireland were beaten by the Pumas was a nightmare experience for O’Brien and he must have had flashbacks when news of his citing came through early on Sunday.

But the Leinster man was convinced that he had not been involved in foul play and he denied committing an offence under Law 10.4(a) for striking.

Now cleared, O’Brien will be focusing on delivering for the Lions on the biggest possible stage at Eden Park on Saturday.

“Firstly, I hope Waisake is ok,” said O’Brien after the citing complaint was dismissed. “I’d like to thank the panel for carefully considering the case and I am looking forward to re-joining the whole squad to prepare for the final Test.”

Sean O'Brien O'Brien has been in brilliant form in New Zealand. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

O’Brien, Gatland and Spencer will link up with the rest of the Lions squad tomorrow, the bulk of the party having moved from Wellington down to Queenstown on Sunday.

The Lions have plans to relax on Monday and get stuck into some of the fun [and less dangerous] activities around the South Island spot, but that third Test won’t be slipping too far from their thoughts.

With O’Brien free to play, their belief might even have jumped up another notch or two.

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