Sean O’Brien has always given it his all on the field of play. The messages he received after he confirmed he would be retiring at the end of this season spoke volumes.
“I think I’ve left everything out there and I hope people think that as well. It was very humbling to see that amount of support coming your way.”
Professional rugby has been his life for the last 14 years.
After making his debut for Leinster in 2008, O’Brien has gone on to win league titles, multiple European trophies, Six Nations championships and represent the British and Irish Lions. “Some of the Heineken Cup wins with Leinster have been a few highlights,” O’Brien says. “I’ve had loads of highs, a few lows and it has been brilliant. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”
He even reflects on his many visits to the treatment room: “With all the speculation around my body and my injuries, I work hard to mind myself the best I can. Obviously, you have the normal stuff like a few fingers that are crooked and a nose that you can't smell too much through, but other than that, the body is fine!”
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When fit and firing, O’Brien was one of the best back-rowers around. After Leinster clinched their second Champions Cup in 2011, he was named the European Player of the Year which the Ireland international backed up a few months later at the World Cup in New Zealand.
He was ranked by the IRB among the five best players of the tournament but after a wonderful career which has concluded with a spell at London Irish, O’Brien is now preparing for the next chapter.
What that entails, only he knows as the 35-year-old kept his cards close to his chest when he fronted the press last week. Staying in rugby is certainly an option, though, but whether that is in England or back home in Ireland remains to be seen.
O’Brien has also left the door open to stepping away from the game entirely, however his experience of coaching National One outfit Rosslyn Park this season may have whetted his appetite to stay in the sport. "I think it has helped me [develop],” he says. “You’re dealing with ex-Premiership players and a standard of player there which is above what I coached previously at home in Ireland. I’ve seen certainly a handful of guys this year where I am thinking ‘how is this fella just playing in Nat1?’”
The former Ireland international has been coaching the defence once a week at Rosslyn Park, who ended the 2021/22 campaign in the bronze medal position as Kieran Power’s men once again had a strong season in the third tier.
In a sense, working in the National One environment may have fast-tracked some learnings for O’Brien that he may not have come across if he was offering his advice further down the rugby pyramid.
With Park’s ground - The Rock - roughly a 30-minute drive from Irish’s Hazelwood Centre, it is clear O’Brien has relished seeing his and the team’s efforts come to fruition this term.
“It’s funny the mix of different people, a certain amount of lads who really want to do well and a few boys who are happy with Saturday rugby and might not want to go Championship, so how do you deal with those boys in training sessions because some weeks they are red hot and some weeks you just know they are not quite on it or mightn’t be up for the game as much?” O’Brien continues.
“Coaching is frustrating as well if everyone is not buying into what you are trying to push them towards and develop them on, but it is very rewarding.
“The rewards are super when you put a plan in place and they go and execute it really well. It could be a winning turnover, it could be a great set of D to win the game. I got my kick out of watching back some of the clips that we worked on during the year and they come to fruition in a game and that is what a coach should do.”
So how does coaching compare to the cut and thrust of playing?
We are delighted to announce a number of new additions to our Coaching Team and Squad for the 2021/22 season.— Rosslyn Park (@rosslynpark) August 25, 2021
?? Welcome @SeanOBrien1987, Ollie Dawe, Jared Saunders and Luke Baldwin.
Read more ??
“It is a different type of rugby stress,” adds O’Brien. “I suppose there is a lot more organisation and planning that goes into it. Obviously, the messaging you try and portray as a coach is completely different but it is something I think I have managed pretty well over my career in terms of man-managing people, and delivering messages in the right tone and the right way.
“I have seen what good and bad looks like a little bit in different set-ups so hopefully I can pull on some of that experience to help me if I go down that route.”
Since O’Brien moved to London Irish in 2019, the Exiles have taken positive strides and the club’s plethora of emerging talent is a key reason for that. The likes of Tom Parton, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Ben Loader have paved the way for players such as Tom Pearson, Will Joseph and the headline-making Henry Arundell to burst onto the scene.
And some of Irish’s starlets have even experienced National League Rugby this term, including Phil Cokanasiga - brother of Joe - who gained some valuable game time with O’Brien’s Rosslyn Park.
“We have the [London Irish] Wild Geese here who are in the London 2 division, but they were in National Two at one stage,” O’Brien says. “The trick from our point of view would be to get them back to that Nat 1, Nat 2 level because it would be a great outlet for us and our younger guys coming through the academy.
“It is very important to have a good level of your fringe players or young players coming through who are playing a tough standard of rugby and Nat 1 and Nat 2 is very tough.
“It toughens those young lads up and gives them a sense that it is all not rosy and that it is not going to be a walk in the park today. They are going to have to roll up their sleeves and work hard. It definitely helps having some of those young lads in clubs like Park, Esher and all these places. Anyone who is on loan at these clubs, as long as they are getting rugby, they are developing. There is definitely a high quality there [in the National Leagues]."
Bringing it back to O’Brien himself, the curtain came down on his playing career last weekend but it didn't end on a winning note as Orlando Bailey’s late penalty saw Bath sneak a 27-24 victory at The Rec.
It means London Irish’s Champions Cup hopes are now out of their hands and whilst they do currently occupy eighth place, they will need Wasps to lose to Leicester Tigers on the final day of the season if the Exiles are to dine at Europe’s top table in 2022/23.
If they are to seal a place in their preferred competition, the trophy could be in the possession of O’Brien’s former club Leinster who go head-to-head with La Rochelle in this season’s final on Saturday.
The Irish province are looking to match Toulouse’s haul of five titles and the high level at which Leo Cullen’s side is operating at makes them favourites heading into this weekend’s clash in Marseille.
So how have the boys in blue surged into a sixth final?
“The big thing I think is the emphasis on the important basics of the game are phenomenal [from Leinster]," O’Brien says. “You look at Prem clubs and you will have time in a Premiership game to have a sniff at a ball for one, two, three seconds where the likes of Leinster and Munster and even Ulster at times and Connacht who play a phenomenal brand of rugby at the minute, it is very quick at the breakdown.
“People say in the URC [United Rugby Championship] it is easier to break down quickly, but Leinster are doing it against the French teams [after beating Toulouse 40-17 in the semi-finals.]
“Leinster are doing it against the best Prem teams so it is not that it is easier, it is just that it is drilled into them more and more so there is more of an emphasis put on to them. I think there are areas of the game that are stronger and more emphasis put on it at home than in other places.”
O’Brien is expecting to be in the South of France on Saturday to watch Leinster try and become European champions once again, but his first port of call after hanging up his boots is to cycle 150km on a Watt Bike to raise funds for the London Irish Foundation.
Only O’Brien knows what is just around the corner for him but his passion and appetite for the game is seemingly as strong as it was when his glittering career first began.