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Delayed by a calf strain, Tullow's finest ready to hit Lions tour like a tank

Sean O’Brien has a big opportunity against the Crusaders on Saturday.

Murray Kinsella reports from Christchurch

THEY’RE DUE A big night down in Tullow RFC at some stage in July and Sean O’Brien is already looking forward to it.

The Carlow club made history this season by winning the Provincial Towns Cup for the first time ever, with O’Brien aiding his home club’s cause as defence and breakdown coach.

Sean O'Brien O'Brien is back to full fitness and raring to go. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He was part of the celebrations of the final victory over Skerries back in April, pulling pints at the clubhouse, but the good times aren’t over just yet.

Tullow are planning another occasion this summer and the intention is to toast the Towns Cup again, but also to raise a glass to their most famous son and what they hope will be his big achievements with the Lions in New Zealand.

O’Brien’s involvement on this tour has been delayed by a frustrating calf strain, but he is now in the clear and ready to hit the Crusaders like a freight train on Saturday, having been named in the Lions’ seven shirt.

With captain and openside Sam Warburton currently sidelined with an ankle injury, having only proved his fitness after a knee issue before the tour, this would be the perfect time for a vintage ‘Tullow Tank’ performance.

O’Brien is certainly not in New Zealand to ride the pine or hit the dirt track; he is confident enough in his ability to see himself as a Test starter. He’s had some good days against the Kiwis before, even if he did miss the famous Chicago win.

But even before that victory, Jerome Kaino had been talking O’Brien up and wondering why he hadn’t made Joe Schmidt’s squad. A sign of respect that very, very few Irish players get.

“It’s nice to get that, but I’d rather beat them than be on a few losing teams to them,” says O’Brien. “Hopefully I get that opportunity to play against them.

Sean O'Brien at Whangarei Boys High School O'Brien on a visit to Whangarei Boys' High School. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’ve had some of my best days [against them]. I obviously enjoy playing against the best team in the world and that’s what they’ve been for the last number of years. You can only look forward to that.”

While O’Brien’s involvement on the pitch for the Lions has been limited until this weekend, he has been contributing as joyously as ever to the atmosphere away from match days.

Maro Itoje has already named him as one of the characters of the tour, and O’Brien has been gleefully carrying out his role as fines master for the Lions.

“James Haskell is on a good few even though I’m rooming with him,” says O’Brien. “He’s probably the worst at the minute!

It’s just a bit of craic really, to be honest with you. When we have the opportunity, we kick a few lads off the bus and let them find their own way to hotels.

“That’s the way the squad is picked as well – to have people who are good tourists as well as good rugby players. There’s a good mix of people to make sure the environment is good and healthy and lads are having fun as well, enjoying each other’s company.”

The craic may be mighty, but it’s the rugby the Lions are here for and O’Brien is eyeing a Test series win over all else.

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Like the rest of the Ireland contingent, the 30-year-old has recent experience of facing the All Blacks, although he had no involvement in the Chicago fixture. O’Brien can still pick out the key facets of that win, elements that will be relevant this summer too.

Sean O'Brien O'Brien has ground to make up. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The lads were just relentless and they attacked from the off that day,” says O’Brien. “You take some learnings of how to stay in the game and there’s a lot of things that went well that day for Ireland and the same on the day England beat them [in 2012].

“Discipline was very good, they played smart, put them under pressure rather than put yourselves under pressure, a lot of things like that. But playing against them and attacking is the big thing.”

The Lions won’t be able to afford to take the foot off the Kiwis’ throats if they do manage to get into a good position, although Steve Hansen’s men will have no problem in throwing down in the physical exchanges either.

The Dublin encounter between Ireland and the All Blacks – when O’Brien returned to deliver a truly immense performance – showed exactly how brutal the Kiwis can be.

“They’re like that every day. I think they have a massive physicality, but I think we matched that at times,” says O’Brien.

“Obviously, they got stuck into us but we got stuck into them too. There was a lot of mistakes… if I hold that ball going around the back of the lineout, the game is completely different.

“You can’t afford to not take those opportunities when they’re given to you against the All Blacks because they’ll come back to bite you later on.”

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

O’Brien hopes that another chance to put those lessons into practice will come later this month, but first he needs to find his feet against the Crusaders and make an immediate impact.

When you ask him if the Tullow crew will be over on tour in New Zealand, O’Brien nods.

“Yeah, over for the last three weeks of it.”

This is a man who plans to make an impact when the Tests roll around.

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Murray Kinsella

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