O’Brien buoyed for breakdown battle

First things first: Sean O’Brien’s dodgy ankle isn’t so dodgy anymore.

The Ireland flanker rolled the offending joint during the captain’s run the day before Leinster’s Heineken Cup meeting with Castres last month, but it was the morning after the game when it flared up and the alarm bells started ringing.

The well-being of Jonathan Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell have all been dissected in considerable detail this week, but O’Brien’s status merits equal billing, given he was the form Irish player this season until injury intervened.

Long renowned for his barreling runs, the 26-year old has begun to make a major mark as a menace at the breakdown this past few seasons, so much so that he has been described more than once as the complete back rower.

“I wouldn’t say I have zeroed in on it recently but it is something that I did want to get into my game because the breakdown is such a big area over the last couple of years and it is probably going to be the main area in any game, especially at international level where everything is so competitive.

“I suppose I said to myself at the start of the year I need to make nice clear decisions as quick as I can. Last year, at times, I think I was wasting myself a bit at rucks that I probably wasn’t going to get ball so I am trying to make better decisions and keep playing the way I’m playing.”

His display against the Ospreys in the first round of the Heineken Cup last month — when he ran over Dan Biggar, scored a try and turned endless ball over, despite the attention of Justin Tipuric — was perhaps the most convincing proof of that yet.

O’Brien’s talent has never been in question but his best position has.

He was named man of the match in only his second start for Ireland, against Italy in the 2011 Six Nations when he wore the No.8 shirt and, though has featured at six another half-dozen times, it is as a seven that he has truly announced himself.

His last 15 appearances for Ireland have come at open side. In fact, so entrenched is he there that it was Peter O’Mahony rather than O’Brien who moved to No.8 when Jamie Heaslip was missing for the third Test against the All-Blacks in 2012.

O’Brien’s candidacy as an all-round open side of world-class proportions will be tested like never before over the course of the coming three weeks with the likes of Michael Hooper, Richie McCaw and Sam Cane among those in line to oppose him.

Negate the influence of those luminaries and Ireland will be in business and it will hardly do any harm for a player whose contract negotiations with the IRFU are ongoing and expected to continue throughout the Guinness Series.

O’Brien has been linked repeatedly with a potential move to the Top 14 with Clermont Auvergne, a side well-used to feeling his destructive force this past three seasons, among those heavy-hitters most frequently mentioned.

If it is an issue, he isn’t saying.

“I am concentrating on these three games, on these three weeks ahead. That stuff will look after itself in good time. There’s no point me worrying about it or anyone else worrying about it. I have a full year to play regardless of what happens. That is what I want to do. To be honest, I couldn’t care less about it at the minute... I certainly won’t be letting it affect me in anyway.”


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