Sean O'Brien during his time with Connacht. James Crombie/INPHO

'When a massive club like Munster come looking for you, it's hard to say no'

24-year-old Exeter centre Sean O’Brien has enjoyed a strong run of form recently.

THERE’S A STRANGE quirk in Sean O’Brien’s career so far. 

The 24-year-old Westmeath man first really broke through with Connacht in the second part of the 2020/21 season. Injuries in midfield finally afforded him chances to play and O’Brien put together a string of impressive performances.

But that run came only after Connacht had already decided they wouldn’t be extending his contract beyond the end of the campaign.

“It was quite bittersweet because I was really enjoying my rugby and playing quite well and in my head, it’s like, ‘Why didn’t this happen six months ago or a year ago?’” says O’Brien of having that excellent spell in the Connacht team.

“But that’s rugby, you have to take the chances you get and keep looking forward.”

It worked out well for O’Brien, though, as he joined his current club, English side Exeter, on a two-year contract in the summer of 2021.

Now, two seasons later and having sometimes struggled for game time with Exeter, O’Brien has started their two recent Heineken Champions Cup knock-out games against Montpellier and the Stormers as Rob Baxter’s men have secured a semi-final against La Rochelle next weekend.

As it happens, his excellent run has come after he agreed to return to Ireland next season with Munster. So again, he’ll be landing on his feet.

Who knows what would have happened had this string of games with Exeter happened earlier? As O’Brien said, that’s rugby. So right now, his focus is on helping Exeter in their bid to win the Champions Cup and finish as high as they can in the Premiership. They’re seventh as things stand after an up-and-down season.

O’Brien, who is on the bench for today’s Premiership clash with Bristol, has loved life in Devon. The locals in Exeter have been welcoming, there’s a strong culture at the club, and the nearby beaches are another perk.

sean-obrien Sean O'Brien was launching Heineken's 'Love Rivalry' campaign. ©INPHO ©INPHO

“From a rugby point of view, I haven’t played as much as I would like but I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve put the jersey on,” said O’Brien.

“Obviously, I’ve been playing a bit more in the last few weeks which makes it a little bit tougher to say goodbye to everything over here. I think I’ve definitely grown a lot as a player here, it’s been a good experience even though I think I’ve only played 15 or 16 games in the last two seasons.

“When you’re training with world-class players, it’s impossible not to get better because you have to up your standards to try and reach where they’re at.”

He believes his communication is one of the biggest things he has improved. He’s “not the loudest fella in the world” but Baxter and co. have helped him to be better in this area, while his defence has also developed a lot. That’s what happens when you’re training against the likes of Henry Slade, Stuart Hogg, and Jack Nowell every day.

O’Brien made his Champions Cup debut in a pool game against Montpellier last season, but the recent knock-out games against the Top 14 side and the Stormers have been huge for him.

“When the team came out for the Montpellier game, I was probably as surprised as anyone to see my name there. But playing the games, I didn’t feel out of my depth or anything. I felt I was ready, I had been working hard for so many years.

“Looking back, your hard work is starting to pay off and you really need to take those chances because they don’t come around too often.”

He had to get his hands on plenty of tickets for the match at Sandy Park as his parents, girlfriend, brother and sister, and their partners all flew in to watch him.

O’Brien’s older brother, Conor, was also a professional with Leinster but he was forced to retire last year at the age of 26 due to persistent hamstring injuries.

sean-obrien O'Brien has been with Exeter for the last two seasons. Ashley Crowden / INPHO Ashley Crowden / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s only two years older than I am, you never expected him to retire for at least another five, six, seven years,” says Sean.

“It obviously doesn’t just happen overnight, especially with his injuries but it’s scary how it can be flipped upside down in one moment. It makes you take nothing for granted and try to just appreciate every moment you have in it.”

So he’s hopeful of continuing his run in Exeter’s number 12 shirt when they meet La Rochelle in next weekend’s semi-final in Bordeaux, although the return of fellow Irishman Ian Whitten means Baxter has another strong option.

If he does feature, O’Brien could be playing against a former Connacht team-mate in Ultan Dillane, who joined La Rochelle last summer. 

“He’s a big fella, I don’t want to be running into him too often, maybe run around him hopefully,” says O’Brien. “Ultan is one of the good guys in rugby, an absolute gentleman. He was a great team-mate and I get on very well with him off the pitch.

“Even when I wasn’t getting a game in Connacht, he always had words of wisdom to pass on. When I started playing, he was very encouraging. But we won’t be best friends now next week!”

The longer-term future is exciting for O’Brien too.

He has signed a two-year contract with Munster and the former Ireland U20 international is looking forward to being back closer to his family. He’s also excited to wear the red jersey.

“It’s a massive club with great history and they’re playing really good rugby at the minute.

“When a massive club like Munster come looking for you, it’s hard to say no.

“At this stage in my career and not having played as much rugby as I would like, I do feel there will be good opportunities to play a lot of rugby next season with Munster. Being closer to home, a massive club like Munster, it’s very exciting.” 

Sean O’Brien and Ultan Dillane have collaborated with the Heineken® ’Love Rivalry’ campaign which encourages sports fans, and non-sports fans alike, to enjoy some friendly rivalry this Spring as Dublin gets set to host the Heineken® Champions Cup Final in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, May 20th.

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