With a series win over New Zealand in the balance for the first time since 1993 and the opportunity to join the 1971 as the only Lions to complete their mission, the stakes could not have been higher for the flanker and his comrades heading into the third Test at Eden Park this morning.
The unfamiliarity that existed between the players from four separate rugby nations at the outset of this tour has long disappeared, communication in games is less vocal and more instinctive. That also meant when the pressure mounted, tensions rose as the Lions geared up for their date with destiny during the final full-contact session at the QBE Stadium in Auckland’s North Harbour.
“It was tasty. There was a good bit of intensity to it, a good bit of cut in it,” said O’Brien. “It’s good to see before a game of this magnitude at the weekend. Lads are buzzing.
“Yeah, there was a few verbals. I was involved in it myself. Yeah, you want everything to go as smoothly as you can on weeks like this and get all the work done now and not be worrying about it leading into Saturday. Tensions are high.
“It’s not a concern. It’s a good thing. Once the session is done then lads are best friends. There has been bits and pieces (on the tour), especially in the last couple of weeks with the Test games.”
The 2017 Lions are aware of the weight of history stretching back to that lone series win here in 1971 and O’Brien knows how much it would mean to those who have gone before, the likes of former tour captains Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll.
“From an Irish point of view, you look at Paulie, you look at Drico and these lads, Keith Wood — players like that who performed all the time for the Lions consistently, for three or four tours.
“They were special players, knowing what it means to them — being in the same changing-room as those boys four years ago, listening to Paulie and Brian speak, it means something special to them.
“This is the biggest game I’ve ever been involved in, I think, this weekend. It’s hugely exciting.
“This group of players have stuck together very well over the past six weeks and the lads that aren’t involved this weekend, they have played a major role in getting us ready today and preparing the team as best we can. It is about the whole lot of us and that is, I suppose, a factor in the back of your head that we will be trying to play for one another.”
When it emerged last Sunday that O’Brien had been cited for allegedly striking All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo with a swinging arm in the closing quarter of the second Test and that Australian citing commissioner Scott Nowland believed the incident, which went unpunished by match referee Jerome Garces had merited a red card, it led to fears the Tullow Tank might miss the biggest game of his career to date.
Yet the Irishman was confident of clearing his name and the disciplinary panel, consisting of three Australians, two of them former players, including ex-Munsterman John Langford, agreed there was no case for O’Brien to answer.
“Looking back at it [the citing] it was fairly innocuous and I would have been very surprised if I had received a ban for something like that, but I went through the process and got the result. It was fine. In my own head, the legalities of the whole thing and the ins and outs of it with the barristers and all that craic, that is what they are doing, but for me I knew there was no intent involved in it, I knew I didn’t do it on purpose so I was happy in my own skin to know that. Obviously going into a hearing you are a bit nervous because you don’t know what you are going to get and you don’t know how they are going to react to something like that, but at the end of the day, the result was the right thing.”
For many Irish supporters, it brought back memories of a similar hearing O’Brien was called to at the 2015 World Cup following his brush with Pascal Pape in the final pool game against France, a thump on the French second row that saw him suspended for the following week’s quarter-final. O’Brien roared with laughter at the suggestion that going through the same process back then had been a help to him last Sunday.
“Ha! Sitting for nine hours in a room at the World Cup, it was pretty intense all right, but it was a different scenario this time around. World Cup, I knew I’d done wrong, I admitted to that, so I had to take my medicine. This time around it was a different story.”
It certainly will be if the Lions were to win the series this morning, especially given O’Brien’s storming contributions thus far, including getting on the end of the try of the tour, if not the season, his finish in the first Test of an exhilarating move started in the Lions 22 by Liam Williams.
“Yeah. It would be wonderful but I’ll be honest, winning the series is what we’re all here for and that would be something special and we’re all looking forward to it.”