No matter what sport it may be, there will be competitors who stand out like a lighthouse. More than that, in a team environment, there will be players who will set pulses racing that bit faster than their contemporaries. In basketball you have Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Switch to soccer and you’re talking Lionel Messi or Erling Haaland, or divert to Gaelic football and it begins and ends with David Clifford.
Now reroute to rugby. Where once any amalgam of luminaries would be dominated by, perhaps, Johnny Wilkinson or Dan Carter or Jonah Lomu or Sebastian Chabal or even the loathsome Richie McCaw, now any such assortment would have to include Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier, Johnny Sexton or Peter O’Mahony.
Not all that long ago, Sean O’Brien would’ve adorned the same pantheon. European Player of the Year 2011, the Carlow farmer was the first really versatile performer in his specialty area of the pitch this writer became properly attuned to. Allow me to explain. The Tullow Tank, you see, was equally as comfortable and effective in any of three roles across the back row.
At this point, it will be admitted that it took this corner some time to appreciate the discernible differences between the three roles. Mind you, the recent interview with O’Brien which formed the basis of what you are reading which provided absolute clarity on the issue. That said, if yours truly had turned on the working half of the brain, the differentials would’ve been fairly obvious.
In layman’s terms, as the name suggests, the flankers (numbers 6 and 7) are the wing forwards on a rugby team. Pertinent to the oval ball code, it does not mean that they spend their time domiciled close to the side line – that’s the domain of 11 and 14 – but what it does refer to is their positioning on either side of a set scrum.
With the third member of the back row – No. 8 in name and nature – commensurate to the same jersey number on a GAA team, their remit is based around, basically, gaining possession and charging up the centre of the field with same. Now, as referred to earlier, it was no bother to Seanie to operate anywhere across the back, but, at Leinster Jamie Heaslip had the middle shirt fairly well sewn up and in the Ireland camp at the time there was again Heaslip as well as Anthony Foley, CJ Stander and O’Mahony vying for and capable of taking the 8 role on.
Thus, the man in whose honour a racehorse was named is better placed to judge what it takes to make it as a back rower. Which is what makes his praise of his replacement as Leinster and Ireland’s Mr Anywhere – Caelan Dorris – all the more noteworthy.
After a valedictory tour of duty with London Irish, O’Brien is now back within the Leinster camp as forwards’ contact coach, or something like that. Meaning he has not only seen the astounding development and progress of Mayo’s Dorris up close, he has actually played an active part therein.
On that front, he must surely see parallels with his own career. The five time British & Irish Lion recently remarked: ” I think 8 is his position, yeah,” said O’Brien confidently. “I don’t think he is as effective as a 6. He is more comfortable and confident at 8”.
“He knows the role and it gives him a bit more freedom. At 6 or 7 you’re either hanging out a bit at 6 or you’re not involved in the first few phases. “Different roles but 8 is where Caelan plays his best rugby. He has been phenomenal, how he has evolved the whole way.”
Furthermore, the man who bought his father a tractor after signing his first professional contract is fulsome in his praise of how Dorris and current World Player of the Year van der Flier dovetail for both province and country.
“The big thing with Josh is his running lines,” explains the Carlow man. When he runs a line he runs it at a hundred miles an hour. The word we use for it is change-up at the line”.
“That explosiveness and the speed and power he has a metre or two away from the line, if you can get power on when you are there or thereabouts then nine times out of ten you will make a half-break or make the second man tackle you and that’s the idea in that scenario. It’s the smartness and timing and acceleration of his running lines”.
High praise coming from someone who has walked the walk and talked the talk. They’ve both earned it.