Former Westmeath minor footballer Conor O’Brien might this week be preparing for a Leinster SFC semi-final showdown with Kildare in Croke Park, but instead it’s the World Rugby U20 Championship final.
O’Brien has been one of the stars of the Irish team which has reached the final for the first time and Westmeath supporters will be hoping a great weekend kicks off on Saturday evening with victory over England at the AJ Bell Stadium in Greater Manchester.
The Mullingar native is enjoying a superb season, having helped Clontarf win the All-Ireland League, but he may have cut it as an inter-county footballer or hurler as well, having combined the three sports when he was younger.
He played hurling with Westmeath up to U16 level and football with the county to minor — his dad Gareth captained Offaly to win their only All-Ireland U21 title in 1988.
“I was trying to balance all three throughout most of my teenage years, up until about 16 when it became more competitive. But you can’t keep all three of them going.
“I started playing rugby at U11s with Mullingar. I was with Mullingar up until about 18. I had been playing football and hurling since I was about five or six.
“That was my dad’s influence, I had tried other sports like soccer. He never really put pressure on me. He let me to it, brought me down every Saturday morning to training. It just comes to a time where it becomes too hard to juggle all three and I just felt rugby had the best prospect for me,” said the former St Finian’s College student.
O’Brien, outstanding in the centre as Ireland have taken these championships by storm, said the intense nature of the tournament, with five games in 19 days, ensures they have to move on quickly from each match.
“It is a characteristic of any World Cup. Games are very intense, one after the other, you have little time to dwell. You are straight back into recovery mode after each game, review what happened, then look to the next game, train, and it’s matchday again. But it’s very enjoyable, it’s been great,” added O’Brien, who has just finished the second of a four-year business and economics degree course at Trinity College Dublin.
Coach Nigel Carolan said they have no major injury worries as they prepare for their first final at this grade against hosts England on Saturday.
Having lost a man a game — Conor Kenny against Wales, Bill Johnston in the match with New Zealand, and Cillian Gallagher against Georgia — he’s relieved to come through this latest test without any further injuries.
“There are a few lads with bumps and bruises but nothing that will be a factor with Saturday’s game in mind,” said Carolan.
Meanwhile, supporters have been warned not to turn up at the final on Saturday without a ticket.
There are some tickets still on sale for the showdown on Saturday but these are expected to be snapped up for the 11,500 stadium.
The game is taking place at the home of Sale Sharks RFC and the Salford Red Devils rugby league side, and is located at Eccles in Greater Manchester, about 10km south-west of Manchester United’s base at Old Trafford.
“We expect a sell-out crowd, especially with the hosts England taking on Ireland, and we are advising fans not to travel to the AJ Bell without a ticket,” said a spokesman.
The limited number of remaining tickets are on sale at ticketmaster.co.uk/U20champs and Ireland’s match will be the third of the day at the venue on Saturday.
South Africa and Argentina will battle it out for third place in the first match at 2.30pm, followed by the clash of reigning champions New Zealand and Australia for fifth place.
Ireland’s clash with England will kick-off at 7pm and will be broadcast live by TG4 and Sky Sports.
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