Sean O’Brien: Warren Gatland and Rob Howley cost Lions series win

It’s almost three months since the British and Irish Lions and New Zealand had to settle for a stalemate but Sean O’Brien still can’t shake the conviction that inadequacies on the part of the coaching ticket cost them a shot at victory.

Maybe even a 3-0 whitewash.

The Leinster and Ireland flanker spoke last week about issues with the Lions’ preparations before the first and third tests and he held nothing back in delving into those, and more again, in the clubhouse of his own Tullow RFC yesterday.

Warren Gatland, whose stewardship of the Lions in 2013 and 2017 has been so widely praised, wasn’t spared his critical eye. Neither was his Wales and Lions assistant Rob Howley whose brief as attack coach was singled out for particular criticism.

This wasn’t a case of O’Brien ‘blasting’ either man. It was no huff, or wild swing. Asked if he would repeat the same raw views to the same men in the event that they were all on tour together again in South Africa in four years’ time, his response was unequivocal.

“100%.”

This, he said, is about being better. About the Lions learning from their mistakes. Among them last summer were the skewed training loads for those first and third tests which ended, respectively, in a convincing defeat for the away side and a draw.

Gatland decided to give the players the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off that last week. Probably worse was the decision to do a “triple day” on the Thursday before the opening joust with the All Blacks.

“You can’t do that,” said O’Brien “If you’re playing a game with Tullow, we wouldn’t do that.”

It’s not like Gatland hasn’t heard this before.

O’Brien was one of a number of senior players to approach the coaching staff before that Auckland defeat and point out that the schedule was leaving them overworked and drained just when rest should have been the priority.

“We did (speak up) at the time, but some of the coaches wanted to get info and they wanted to tick their boxes and we did discuss it afterwards. Friday was very light but it was too late at that stage. People were trying to recover all day Friday.”

Equally detrimental, it seems, was the role Howley played. O’Brien went as far as to say that it was Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell who “ran the attacking shape” and that the coaches had “a lot to answer for” in their duties on that side of the ball.

“If I was being critical of any coach it would be the fact that I think Rob struggled with the group in terms of his attributes of trying to get stuff across. Whereas Johnny and Owen drove everything the second week, for instance, in our attack and had a better plan in place.

“So I don’t know if it was people were not buying into what (Howley) was about or whatever else. That’s the hard thing about a Lions tour as well: Getting everyone to listen to a coach that was probably set in his ways.”

This was, in many respects, vintage O’Brien: Strong, forceful, devoid of bullshit.

One of his first acts when returning home was to present his jersey to the Tullow club — as he did after the Australia tour in 2013 — but he can’t help but think back on it all with regret.

“We should have won 3-0 with the players we had. We should have won the series. Looking back, and I could be completely wrong, but if we had a little more structure during the weeks and more of an attack game plan, as such, driven way earlier in the tour, we could win 3-0.”

Listening to him speak yesterday was to wonder again why he hasn’t figured in all the talk of who will captain Ireland in Japan in 2019.

Brian O’Driscoll gave a lengthy interview only this month on that very subject and the Carlow man’s name simply didn’t map.

His injury profile may have something to do with that, so too that willingness to call a spade a spade, although he believes himself that it’s his life away from rugby that has locked him out of discussions when it comes to the armband.

O’Brien has never allowed himself to be cocooned by his career. The journey from Dublin to Carlow was a regular one, taken willingly, in his earlier years. Two hours a pop in a car when he could have been resting up.

He did a bit of coaching on the side and he likes his farming, too. Even electrocuted himself with a drill a few days before one Leinster game. Eventually, as injuries mounted, he asked himself were all those contributing factors?

“I would say a few years ago I was burning the candle at both ends so for the likes of coaches seeing you coming down here, for instance, once a week, or going to coach a team on a Sunday, it’s probably not the best thing to do with your body, in their eyes.

“While they know you have the leadership qualities, is it the right thing you want your captain doing? But I look at it in two ways. I look at it as in that’s my release from rugby, coming down and going for a walk with the dogs, or going shooting, or whatever it might be.

“That’s the way I grew up since I was four of five, so while I pulled an awful amount of that back in the last four or five years, even getting down and farming… They don’t want you working. Your job is rugby, obviously, and that’s the most important thing.

“But I’d say from their perspective, that’s why I’ve never been in that (captaincy) window.”

Anyway, he’s in the “shape of life” and poised to start another new season — Leinster should see him in action again in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, Robbie Henshaw may feature tomorrow week for Edinburgh’s Guinness Pro14 visit to Dublin, though Rob Kearney is another month away, at least, after his latest hamstring injury.


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