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'Roy Keane always showed up on the big days - I wanted to be like that'

Sean O’Brien believes Ireland need a Keane-like mentality if they are to get the result they need in Paris today.

O'Brien admired Roy Keane's winning attitude.
O'Brien admired Roy Keane's winning attitude.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE EUROPEAN PLAYER of the year made a quiet entry, bowing his head as he walked through the café, casually dressed in t-shirt and jeans.

A few fellas at an adjoining table fidgeted with their napkins and looked across. This was June 2011 and Séan O’Brien was already a recognisable face.

There was nothing loud or brash about either his voice or dress sense but as soon as he started talking, something was noticeably different. Unlike so many other interviewees, he wasn’t disingenuous.

“For sure, Ireland should aim to win the World Cup,” he said. “I’ve no doubt Leinster can win more European Cups; Ireland more grand slams.”

It was like listening to a rugby version of Roy Keane.

Nine years on, he smiles at the comparison, Keane being a hero of his growing up, the guy who shone in the Manchester United midfield when a nine-year-old O’Brien was brought to Old Trafford by his uncle.

“I used to love his honesty in interviews,” O’Brien says. “He would never hold back with anything. There’s something admirable about that.”

roy-keane-with-graham-henry Roy Keane speaks with Graham Henry at an All Blacks training camp. Source: Dave Lintott

This went deeper than respecting a person’s frankness, though – for the thing O’Brien really liked about Keane was the fact he didn’t feel the need to apologise for having ambition. “Look, right through my career, I wanted to be the best,” O’Brien says, “but I wanted the team to be the best, too. I wanted to be successful.

“In my mind, and I don’t really know where this came from, I always believed we could beat anyone. So why not have goals?

“I always had this mindset, that on the biggest occasions, the best players always show up. It was just a thing that was in the back of my head; I never said it out loud or anything.

“But I looked at other teams and players, looked at Roy Keane for instance, Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll. Those boys showed up on the big day. Every time there was a game in the balance, they’d take control of it.

“So I learned to revel in the big occasion. Even in 2012, following a relatively quiet season, I said to myself on the day of the Heineken Cup final, ‘this is where you shut everyone up’. The bigger days, I could always do it.”

sean-obrien-passes-the-tackle-of-ruan-pinaar See you later: O'Brien passes Ruan Pienaar in the 2012 final. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Few days are bigger in the rugby calendar than today, the final round of the Six Nations, with titles and reputations on the line. All week there has been plenty of chat about aerial battles, jackals and defence systems, chasing bonus points and holding your nerve.

But the tone changed yesterday when a comment from Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s World Cup winning coach, was delivered to Simon Easterby, the Irish forwards coach. “Wales are not softies like Ireland,” Erasmus said in Chasing the Sun, a film about South Africa’s World Cup triumph.

The words struck a chord with O’Brien. “In the past, we may have thought too much about game-plans and detail and everything like that.

“Sometimes it is as simple as saying, ‘we have the game-plan, that’s locked away. Now is the time to go to war lads’ and make sure, first and foremost, we deliver physically. If you do that, everything else can look after itself.

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“Like, two years ago (the opening game of the 2019 Six Nations championship) England came out and absolutely bullied us. That shouldn’t happen, not when it is Ireland v England. Sometimes, in my mind, it comes down to a scrap. Either they’re going to win this (battle) or we will. So you’ve got to make sure it’s us.”

Today’s Parisian scrap will take place without O’Brien and without a crowd. Like everyone else, he’ll be sitting in his favourite armchair, glued to the TV.

I’d be licking my lips if I was an Irishman going to Paris today,” he says. “Not too many people think Ireland will get a bonus point but we can if we play to our potential and I know the individuals who’ll be driving this. It’ll be all out attack from Ireland.”

Thoughts of going on the attack in Paris bring back painful memories, too – for it was here, four years ago, when he tore the hamstring off his bone, another career-threatening injury to add to a lengthy list.

Starting from the head down, he’s had a couple of concussions, a cut over his right eye that had to be double stitched; some chipped teeth; his left shoulder operated on twice; some popped ribs; a broken right arm; both thumbs operated on; a broken hand; a hernia operation; both hips scoped when he was 20, his right hip recently operated on; that hamstring scar from Paris; a scope on his left knee; a broken leg; two scopes on his ankle.

Right now, he’s pain free and fine, ready to start playing again after nearly a year-and-a-half of rehab. But down the line, when middle age hits, does he worry about the effect all these injuries will have on his wellbeing?

“Sometimes,” he says, “but I’m kind of a man who lives in the now. So let’s say I looked at the fact I have had so many serious injuries; I could just retire – but for the sake of doing so, it is not going to make me any better off in 10 or 20 years-time. Whatever will happen then, in terms of arthritis, it’s going to happen regardless of what I do in the next year or two.”

So he’ll soldier on, knowing he’ll never add to the 56 Ireland caps he won, but hoping he can ink a third Lions tour onto his CV. There’s also the drive to do something with London Irish, the club he signed for when he felt he was being undervalued in contract negotiations with the IRFU.

In his newly published autobiography, Fuel, he candidly writes about players being pieces of meat, yet amid the cynicism, there is still enough space for an old fashioned dreamer who is still enthralled with the game.

“Look, I could have gone out, could have slipped away quietly, but I have five nephews and I think of them every time I play now. There is always something or someone you are doing it for.

“At the start of my career, I was all about proving people wrong, people who would have doubted that I could make it. I know some people saw me as a bogger who wasn’t good enough.

sean-obrien O'Brien photographed on his farm in Tullow. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“So I had a chip on my shoulder. It hadn’t been done for a long time – a fella from the country breaking through at Leinster.

“That fuelled my desire. Any time I went out onto the field, it was with the intention of playing as hard as I could go. I represented my country and my province with pride, won an awful amount doing so. I don’t have anything to prove to anyone, anymore.

“I represented the whole of rural Ireland as such, hopefully, in terms of breaking the trend of being from the country and achieving what I did in my career. I’m proud of that.”

He believes more Sean O’Briens and Tadhg Furlongs will be unearthed. “Fifteen years ago, people thought Leinster was Dublin. Well, it’s not. The game is thriving in Carlow, Wexford, all over the province.”

And it’s needed for when he looks around academies now, he sees too many robotic personalities. “Schools are producing brilliant players, guys who are so knowledgeable about the game, so athletic, and academically they’re brilliant, all intelligent lads who have a good education behind them. My concern is that too much of their mind is focused on rugby. They’d just be very different from fellas from years ago, the likes of Peter Clohessy, Mick Galwey, Denis Hickie, Victor Costello, Paddy Johns. The new generation wouldn’t tell the stories those lads did. They were characters.”

Character, Ireland will need plenty of that tonight.

Fuel by Sean O’Brien, written in conjunction with Gerry Thornley, published by Penguin, is available from Irish bookstores.

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Garry Doyle

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