‘He’s a ledge’ – O’Brien’s time in Ireland comes to a cruel end

HE WOULD CERTAINLY have preferred to finish his time with Leinster playing in a winning team but the esteem in which Sean O’Brien is held within the squad meant he did at least bid farewell by lifting the Pro14 trophy.

His team-mates, of course, already knew that O’Brien would have to share bad news with the public the following day.

O’Brien lifted the Pro14 trophy on Saturday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

And the statement duly arrived yesterday afternoon confirming that not only is O’Brien’s Leinster career at an end but that he may well have played his last game for Ireland.

Ruled out of the World Cup due to the need for hip surgery, it’s not unimaginable that O’Brien returns to action impressively with London Irish and the IRFU’s policy of not picking players based abroad softens. But it is rather unlikely.

If this is the end of O’Brien’s time with Ireland, he will have earned 56 caps – which surely would have been far greater a total but for the injuries that have crippled him in recent years.

O’Brien rolled back the years to be truly outstanding on the 2017 Lions tour but he has missed many of the big days for Leinster and Ireland in the recent past.

He was part of the 2015 Six Nations victory under Joe Schmidt but was denied the opportunity to be part of last year’s Grand Slam, the two wins over the All Blacks, a series success in Australia and more.

He started and shone in Leinster’s Heineken Cup wins in 2011 and 2012, earning the European Player of the Year award after the former. But O’Brien was sidelined for last season’s historic double.

Nonetheless, he will go down as a genuine Leinster legend, having been such an important and influential figure within the squad even when he wasn’t able to feature on the pitch.

O’Brien’s last game was the Champions Cup final defeat to Saracens. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

His team-mates will all wish him well as he looks to recover from his hip surgery and move to London Irish on a three-year deal this summer.

“He’s a ledge, that’s the best way to describe him,” said James Lowe on Saturday after the Pro14 final.

“Man, you know we’ve just got such much depth at Leinster, especially in that jersey, probably he felt it was maybe his time to go [to London Irish].

“And it was such a tough decision. He’s a great man for the club, a great character on and off the field, loves a pint and I can’t wait to have one with him tonight.”

O’Brien will also be counted as a legend of Irish rugby, having gone to two World Cups and won over countless supporters with his abrasive and powerful style of rugby.

The Tullow Tank is respected almost everywhere in the rugby world – the Kiwis truly rate him – and Leinster senior coach Start Lancaster feels he is among the very best.

“I think he’s a fantastic leader, a fantastic player, a fantastic character, a fantastic personality,” said Lancaster.

“I think he’ll be massively, massively missed by Leinster. I think I didn’t really get the benefit of really coaching him the way in which I wanted because the three years in which I’ve been here, he’s been injured for quite a lot of that period of time.

O’Brien will be missed in Leinster. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“But his qualities still shone through and I thought it was a great testament to the team, and to Johnny [Sexton] in particular, that he would give Sean the opportunity to raise the trophy because it’s been an emotional few weeks for Sean to leave Leinster, and we all feel his disappointment that he has to leave.

“But ultimately I’m very proud to have worked with him and I’d consider him a good mate.”

Life will move swiftly on, of course, and Leinster will be looking to the future, of which we have already seen plenty of glimpses.

Josh van der Flier returned from injury to finish the season impressively, while Leinster will hope that Dan Leavy can recover from his horrific knee injury.

Max Deegan and Caelan Doris have major potential in the back row too, while 19-year-old Scott Penny openside is an exciting talent.

“I think Scott Penny is a little Sean O’Brien, to be honest,” said Lancaster on Saturday.

“He’s going to be a great player.

“The show rolls on with Leinster and that’s a great credit to the academy and the quality of the players who come through the system here.”

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