Sean O’Brien will not be poring over every injury report the British & Irish Lions issue about tour captain Sam Warburton.
If he is to realise his ambition of Test selection against the All Blacks in the upcoming series the Ireland flanker does not intend to rely on the Welshman’s fitness as his way into the Lions’ number seven jersey.
Warburton has emerged as an injury concern in New Zealand over the last couple of days, having suffered an ankle strain in the opening game against the Provincial Barbarians a week ago in Whangarei.
Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree yesterday declared he was in no doubt Warburton will play again in one of the five tour games before the first Test at Eden Park a fortnight today but the Wales openside was not part of this morning’s matchday squad facing the Crusaders in Christchurch.
“You saw him in game one,” Rowntree said of Warburton. “He hurt his ankle a bit in that game, he’s not able to train fully yet but I watched him train next to us doing some rehab running and he’s working hard.”
As Rowntree spoke, Ireland back rower O’Brien was sharing his views with the media about his first game back from a calf injury, the Crusaders game not just his first taste of action on this, his second Lions tour, but since April 1, when Leinster beat Wasps in their Champions Cup quarter-final at Aviva Stadium.
Ready to hit the ground running having returned to full training last Tuesday, the 30-year-old was discussing his prospects of making the Test team and in the process displacing the two-tour captain, who led the Lions to a victory over Australia four years ago but missed the series-deciding Test through injury, O’Brien stepping off the bench and into the starting back row in Sydney.
“There’s three positions I’m battling for, so the odds are a little bit better in that sense,” O’Brien ventured. “Obviously, Warby is captain but as you’ve seen a few years ago anything can happen and it’s about putting your best foot forward and making sure your hand is up for selection.
“That’s what I want to do, I want to be in the Test side.”
O’Brien lauded the Lions’ coaches’ approach that ensured all 41 players are made to feel that they have a genuine chance of selection to face the All Blacks.
“I think if you asked the coaches to pick a team I think it would be very very difficult to pick a team with the lads they have there at the minute. Yeah, I think it’s wide open at the minute.
“I think everyone knows if you do the work and you’re playing well then you’re in with a shout. It would be different if we were playing the same XV a couple of weeks in a row, then you’d be in a bit of trouble. So this is good for morale, that everyone knows if they’re playing well then they’re in contention.”
Yet O’Brien refused to consider that Warburton’s injury was a benefit to his personal chance of selection.
“I’m not thinking like that. Any opportunity I’m given I’m going to do what I can do. I’m not going to be banking on Sam being injured or not, I’m going to try and play my game and hopefully that’s good enough to be selected.”
Returning to his original point, O’Brien reiterated that he was willing to play in the six, seven or No.8 jersey, a position relayed to Rowntree, who replied: “Funny he should say that, isn’t it?
“He’s not played a lot of rugby coming into the tour but he’s trained exceptionally well in the last week. He’s class and a proven performer as we saw in the last tour. He brings many attributes to the game on both sides of the ball. I like his energy in the group, he’s impressive and I’m looking forward to seeing him in the group.”
O’Brien admitted he had felt uncertain he would make the tour after his calf prompted a late withdrawal from Leinster’s PRO12 semi-final squad that faced the Scarlets on May 20, nine days before the plane took off from London to Auckland.
“It was in the back of my mind. When I picked this up, it was a bit longer than I thought but it was only a few weeks anyway so was I confident enough that it would not hinder me training here. Last Tuesday was the first full session so I’ve had the best part of two weeks to get ready.
“ I got introduced gradually to the field so as to hit all the targets along the way as I came back with the calf. Thankfully it’s all good and I had a good week’s training last week.”
Now the Tullow Tank is ready to make his Lions tour bow and pull on the red jersey for the first time since that victorious moment in Sydney almost four years ago.
“It’s a huge honour, something I’m very proud of, and a special bunch of people to be involved with. It’s a very strong squad and I’m delighted to be here.
“I’ve grown up a lot in the last four years, one of the younger guys to one of the older ones but that is something I embrace and enjoy that whole aspect of it.
“I’m definitely a smarter player anyway. I’ve added a few more strings to my bow I think, it’s just about getting some consistency now and getting a few games under my belt to get up and running. I’ve trained incredibly hard over the last six weeks and I feel great. I just want to play now.
“These games are that bit quicker, so that will stand to me too.”
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