It is significant that Séan O’Brien displayed five coats of arms at the top of his resignation letter and that the Tullow RFC insignia took pride of place alongside Ireland, Leinster, the Lions and London Irish.
“Brien has scaled perhaps rugby’s greatest heights as a dominant back line, capable of bending games to his will, but his hometown club remained an integral part of him for the long haul. His sense of place and commitment to Tullow had him pacing to coach different teams over the years until Leinster coaches had to step in and suggest he spend less time on the road.
The town of Carlow has always been part of the Tullow tank’s identity as a hard-nosed, uniquely talented player whose combination of game intelligence, tenacity and skill has earned respect in the toughest spots.
For years there was a running gag that the All Blacks only knew one Irish player. Before games their players were rolled out for interviews and spoke about the danger of Brian O’Driscoll and when the big center retired it was O’Brien who filled that void.
We recall Jerome Kaino’s genuine astonishment that the Leinster man had not traveled to Chicago for the team’s 2016 meeting, the teak-hard World Cup-winning flanker struggling to stomach the idea that the only opponent who deserves respect, was back in Dublin.
The dynamic of these two teams has changed in the years since, but at a time when Ireland couldn’t beat the All Blacks, it was O’Brien who earned the Kiwis’ admiration.
His performance in the gruesome defeat of 2013 was worthy of a win in every game, while his performance at the 2011 World Cup on New Zealand soil didn’t hurt his case.
He was an Irish player who the All Blacks felt could add something to their mix, a compliment of the highest order considering he was playing in the Richie McCaw era.
Coming from club sport, he had to earn his stripes when he left home to play for UCD and join the provincial academy.
Michael Cheika forced him to be patient, but he broke down the door and as Rocky Elsom left, he stepped into the void and thrived.
At his best, O’Brien was a force of nature.
He was never the greatest, had incredible carry power and at No. 8 he transformed into a tackler capable of going toe-to-toe with any opponent.
Given his aggressive way of playing the game, he suffered many injuries and while he didn’t win as many caps as some of his peers, there is no doubt that he was one of the great Irish players of his generation.
At two world championships he was the dominant force on the team. He and his team-mates will always look back on the 2011 quarter-final defeat of Wales with great regret, but he shed light on that tournament and lyrics about his superhuman qualities went viral as he became a household name.
His humanity was shown four years later when he punched Pascal Pape in the stomach in the opening stages of the crunch pool match against France. He somehow avoided a red card but his last eight game suspension robbed Ireland of another world-class talent as Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Jared Payne were injured and proved too much.
Up in the stands, O’Brien had many regrets, but his mistakes only underscored his humanity. He made mistakes on and off the pitch, but he owned those actions.
His injuries have worsened over time, but perhaps that makes his 2017 Lions tour all the more remarkable.
That he started all three Tests and scored one of the Lions’ great tries while playing some of his best rugby games in a historic series draw speaks volumes for his quality. He was so good he pushed Sam Warburton into the No. 6 jersey.
Four years earlier he forced his way into the Test equation and has added that Australia win to the medals he has won for Leinster and Ireland. A European Player of the Year award for the 2011 campaign is another fitting recognition.
He’ll likely move into coaching and his humanity will help him relate to young professionals, but if he’s keen to break into the world of media, he could thrive for offering a candid style that’s so often at odds with the corporate world of coaching language is offered in the world of rugby experts.
For now, he’s focused on getting a good deal with London Irish after a couple of injury-hit seasons in England.
He’ll sleep soundly when he walks away, knowing he put Tullow on the rugby map.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/sean-obrien-kept-his-feet-firmly-rooted-as-he-scaled-rugbys-greatest-heights-41533650.html Rúaidhrí O’Connor: “Seán O’Brien stayed grounded as he scaled rugby’s greatest heights”