‘He’s still the same Sean O’Brien he always was’

They have another jersey for the wall now. Right up there alongside the Irish one, a Sam Warburton jersey from the World Cup quarter-final in 2011 and the prized geansaí of Kiwi legend, Richie McCaw.

Sean O’Brien joined a select group of post-war Lions winners on Saturday morning, and did so with many of his family and friends packed into the clubhouse of his beloved Tullow RFC.

Others made their way over because they wanted to be part of a special occasion, and to honour a popular man. Rory Elmes and Martin Byrne, Towns’ Cup winners with local rivals, Co Carlow FC were in attendance. So too the chairman of Carlow’s underage GAA section, Mick Murphy.

Meanwhile, the entire proceedings were being captured for inclusion in the Living With Lions documentary.

They can scarcely believe that their little corner of the planet is creating such a stir but conversely, no-one is surprised that O’Brien is the cause of it all.

“He was always a good one,” nods O’Brien’s former underage coach, Pat O’Keeffe. “Always naturally strong, had the hand-off and was quick in the take-off.”

Those skills were developed at home, where O’Brien and his brothers Stephen and William knocked chunks out of each other.

“He was head and shoulders above everybody for a long time” smiles William. “Stephen would be fairly big as well but Sean always had it. He was so good at everything and nothing fazed him. So I wouldn’t be nervous about this. I know what he’s like. The Australians were delighted he hasn’t been playing until now and when the Lions brought him, they brought in George Smith to try deal with him.”

Youth membership of Tullow has doubled since the 2011 European Player of the Year burst onto the national and international scene.

O’Brien is woven into the fabric of the club. He is director of rugby and regularly holds coaching sessions with any group from the minis upwards; often on the morning after a game with Ireland or Leinster. He supports the social side as well and has brought the likes of Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Brad Thorn and Shane Jennings along with him on such occasions.

His father, Sean snr is club president. William is the first team full-back. The club means everything to O’Brien and judging from this turnout and the warmth in people’s voices when they talk about the 26-year-old, it’s a mutual love affair.

The turnout is an indication of how important a club is to a community but you get the sense it’s more with O’Brien. People like him for his ordinariness, the fact that he hasn’t changed one iota and for the selflessness that has touched many.

Not even his mother Kaye has any idea of half of what he does in terms of work or giving donations until the ‘Thank You’ cards come in the door. Barrettstown Camp, the St John’s Ward for cancer patients at Crumlin Hospital. And so many more.

Club PRO Noel Nolan tells a tale that reveals a man who couldn’t be more grounded if he were staked to the earth.

“The day the Lions squad was picked, Sean was with our CCRO (Club Community Rugby Officer) Larry Canavan coaching up in Talbotstown National School. Larry would have known him and coached him right through the years. He had asked him well in advance. That sums Sean up.”

Sean snr, Stephen, and sister Alex made the trip Down Under but Kaye and another sister, Caroline are in the clubhouse. Caroline has her two sons, Patrick and Will (Sean’s godson). Uncle Sean is a hero.

Kaye was feeling emotional before the game, having received a text from Sean in the morning.

“I had sent him a letter and a card and he only read it this morning, so he texted me back,” she explains. “I had said how proud I was of him and he said ‘I’m very proud to have you as my mother’ and the tears started then.

“I know it’s such an important day but I’m so proud of him for what he’s done for the area. He’s such a good lad. He hasn’t changed. He’s still the same Sean O’Brien that he always was. He was always a good child, a very deep child.

“He gets very emotional. As I told them when they were small, the place for any built-up emotions is outside on that field.”

So now we know who Will Genia and co have to thank for the pain inflicted on them by O’Brien’s tireless tackling, general work at the breakdown and bullocking runs.

“I’ve five children and I’m equally proud of them but for Seán to live his dream is exceptional,” Kaye continues. “He’ll be anxious now but he’ll focussing on what’s ahead. He’ll have tunnel vision. Once he’s safe, injury-free, I don’t care.”

As we speak, Kaye, William and a crew of Tullow members of all ages and sizes appear on Sky Sports giving their good luck messages.

At half time, the mood is positive. O’Brien is flourishing on the biggest stage. Noel takes the opportunity to sell Lotto tickets. There are children hurling in the hall.

We’d already seen Seán wielding a hurley Down Under but he was a hugely talented footballer too.

Local reporter, Kieran Murphy tells a story about him coming on as a sub for Fighting Cocks at half time when he was in the Leinster Academy. He hadn’t been given permission by his rugby bosses but the need was great and as usual, he answered the call. The opponents thought they’d test the mettle of this rugby big shot. So one hardy buck had a go, barrelling in with a shoulder. O’Brien was yet to become the Tullow Tank but he was a big unit. He met the aggressor and sent him bouncing back.

Another followed quickly but the result was exactly the same. O’Brien left out a cackle of laughter, like a child chasing a butterfly around the garden. He couldn’t have been happier.

It was much like he dealt with Genia and the Australian back row really.

“He’s come a long way since playing with the thirds,” jokes Tom Nolan, who had him in with the U7s recently.

A group of the lads often pass the time picking a best Tullow XV. When it comes to 6 or 7, the argument is whether they can select someone who never played for the firsts! O’Brien was called ashore after an hour of industry that must have left him exhausted. Just over 20 minutes later, the final whistle blew to a massive roar.

Tullow’s Sean O’Brien had become a rugby immortal.


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