By John Foley
SEAN O’Brien is enjoying his break from rugby by making sure the cows are calving and doing some building work on the family farm outside of Tullow.
“I’m back home in Tullow at the moment and I’ve been farming for the last few weeks,” O’Brien told the McSport Motivation series in an interview posted online this week.
“I’ve been kept very busy with that. I was in Mayo for seven weeks and I got home then as there was a bit of pressure on. But we have nearly all the cows calved at this stage so I’ve started a little extension on the little cottage beside the farm aswell. I’m getting lots of work done, that’s for sure.”
O’Brien made his long-awaited debut for his new club London Irish at the start of March, but shortly after he had made his return from a long injury layoff, the season ground to a halt.
He says there is still no clarity about when there might be a return to action.
“It’s similar to the rest of the world. We’re unclear of what is happening. We’ve been in contact with the club but they still don’t know what the story will be in the coming weeks and when we might get back to small group training. So we just have to sit tight, be patient and keep doing our own [training] programmes.”
The former Leinster man says he would have loved a longer run of games but that he has been training well while in lockdown.
“Looking back now on the past eight, nine weeks, it’s been brilliant for my body. I don’t think I’ve ever been as fit as I am right now. I did some running tests two weeks ago and hadn’t hit scores like it since 2017. So it’s given me a big opportunity to get a lot of work through my body.
“It’s an opportunity to get yourself in the best shape of your life or you can go the opposite way and sit on your arse all day. I’m not going to do that. I want to be able to hit the ground running and embrace this time I have.”
O’Brien has been enjoying his time at home too and he spoke about how fortunate he is to be able to keep busy and be productive in a farming environment.
“I was in the tractor the other day and I was thinking how lucky we are to be able to do what we are doing as farmers. You’re on your own the majority of the time and it’s a good release. You’re busy and the days go by quickly. It is a nice lifestyle this time of the year when the weather is good.”
But throughout the recent restrictions, O’Brien says the ultimate goal of returning to the game is to the forefront of his mind and he has had no problem finding the motivation to stay training.
“My goal is to get back playing rugby as soon as I can. I’ve only played 48 minutes in the last year!” he says. “But it’s going to be better for me and better for my rugby that I have gotten this break because I am in such a good place fitness wise. That’s my goal, to get back playing consistent rugby to help London Irish get to a really good place back in the Premiership if we get back going this season.
“But if they make a decision to can the season, then you have to reassess again, pull it right back to mini-goals for the next couple of months and when you resume pre-season for next year, you go again.”
The high-contact nature of rugby means the game is not likely to make a quick return.
“We might end uo playing tag rugby,” he laughs. “There is a lot of contact in rugby. We’re in each other’s faces, in close proximity all the time. Talking to players in the Premiership, a lot of them have parents living with them, they have big families. All of that has to be taken into account when we get back into a rugby environment. We have to get back in a safe and manageable way.
“There was a suggestion players could go into isolation just to finish the season. That wouldn’t sit well with players who have a family. But it’s all very up in the air and that’s the hard thing. We don’t have any information to give us a plan to move forward at the moment.”
Playing the game behind closed doors may not be viable for many clubs.
“I feel good playing the game because that’s what I love doing,” O’Brien says. “But I don’t know how feasible it is for clubs and unions to survive without the fans. They’re the ones financing it, they’re the ones going week in, week out. So it would be difficult. A lot of clubs in the Premiership rely on gate receipts to finance themselves month to month. I could see some clubs getting into difficulty.”
O’Brien says there would have to be a long lead-in before the rugby season could get back up and running as players would effectively need to go through another pre-season training regime.
“We would probably need six weeks of pitch training and conditioning,” he says. “I have some weights, but not enough to keep building and getting stronger. So in order to get back to a level where you’re not going to get injured, I think you need five or six weeks of a pre-season. And then you’re going to need a few games to get match-fit again.”
However, O’Brien says he has enjoyed many aspects of the last few months.
“It is a bit strange but it puts things into perspective too,” he says. “There are positives. I’m home around family, I’ve reconnected with friends. It brings you back to earth a bit and out of that bubble of a professional lifestyle. But you miss the game, you miss the craic with the boys, miss playing in front of the fans.
“We need to remind ourselves sport isn’t everything in life, but it sure is missed.”