The Leinster and Ireland flanker has endured a frustrating campaign, having managed just half-a-dozen appearances for his club and two, last November, for his country. A pair of failed comeback attempts have only added to his frustration.
The Carlow man returned from the hip injury that had ruled him out since December against Scarlets in March, only to suffer a shoulder injury which resurfaced on his most recent runout, at home to Treviso last Saturday.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen revealed after that fixture that the player had reported a soreness in the same joint, although the province on Monday refused to rule him out of this weekend’s Champions Cup semi-final against Scarlets.
All of which is a long way removed from the original prognosis.
O’Brien was supposed to be back for the Six Nations, then it was the latter stages of the tournament, so the setbacks against Scarlets and Benetton have been variations of the same theme even if the focus has switched from hip to shoulder.
The indications are that it’s the shoulder problem that has necessitated the call for surgery and that the hip will be seen to at the same time.
He has had major issues with both body parts in the past, among others. O’Brien had already undergone 21 surgeries by the time he returned from a long-term hamstring injury back in September of 2016.
He remarked at the time as to how he has “always had big things, I don’t have small tears or small knocks.
“If something goes on me I break it. So, I break a hand or an arm or a shoulder.”
It’s six years since his seasonal tally of games for Leinster has stretched to double digits. His run of ill luck first kicked in more or less on the back of his impressive performances for the British and Irish Lions in Australia in 2013.
He had 115 professional games banked in five years by the time he returned from Oz that summer. The five seasons since have added just 63 more. Among the highs missed are two Six Nations-winning campaigns and Ireland’s defeat of New Zealand in Chicago.
O’Brien has admitted to returning from injury before he was ready back in his younger days, but he was adamant two weeks ago that he had learned that lesson and that he wouldn’t come back “half-cocked” again.
His focus then was on featuring for Leinster as the club seeks a league and European double, and for Ireland in Australia this summer. “I need those games,” he said. “I need that level now again to get used to it again, to get my body battle-hardened again.”
The impression now is that he needs quite the opposite. Career sabbaticals have been utilised in New Zealand and Australia in recent times and it has been suggested in seasons past that Irish players dogged by injuries, such as O’Brien, Jonathan Sexton and Cian Healy, could do with something similar.
Sexton and Healy never gave that line of thinking much truck. “I thought I took a sabbatical already,” Sexton said 12 months ago after an extended run of niggling injuries. “Six weeks in (the Sports Surgery Clinic in) Santry.”
O’Brien has at least accepted that there is merit in the concept.
“If I had a run of games, it definitely would be something, especially leading into a World Cup or something like that,” he told ‘Off The Ball’ 15 months ago. “(David) Pocock was taking it now after his stint in Japan and obviously (Richie) McCaw had done it as well.”
The Tullow back row has shown an ability to embrace new ways in the past given he spoke in that same radio interview about how he had started to be more of a link man and pass the ball rather than plough “stupidly” into dead breakdowns.
The World Cup is another 17 months away and O’Brien is still only 31. It may be that a few months on furlough after whatever rehab he will undergo would be just the thing to leave him refreshed, mentally and physically, for Japan in 2019.