TULLOW people talk about Sean O’Brien’s generosity with his time. Recently, the former Leinster, Irish and Lions player demonstrated this when he took a call from the Carlow Nationalist. Here he recalls some of the great moments of an astonishing career which took him all over the world. You can hear more from this discussion here.
Irish debut against Fiji in 2009-Did he ever envisage at the time that his career would take him where it actually did?
An no. Not at that stage. I was very much taking it in my stride at that stage. I was kicking off my career and I didn’t think at all it would go the way it did.
It was mooted that he could play hooker for Ireland at one stage
There were Chinese whispers that (Michael) Cheika wanted to put me in as hooker and I actually trained at hooker for two weeks at one stage in the Academy.
We had Jenno (Shane Jennings), Rhys (Ruddock), Jamie (Heaslip) at that stage and Kevin McLaughlin was starting at six. There were a few lads who were a lot taller than me as well with lineout options. I was throwing in the line-out but I was throwing them all over the place because I didn’t want to do this and I didn’t do it. I told him that I would play in the back-row.
Was there one game in particular which drew him to the attention of the Leinster selectors and made them realise how good he was?
I don’t think there was one particular game. It was the involvement I had in games. Whether it was two minutes, three minutes, 45. I always made an impact. Then I remember starting a few then and with my stats showing how much work I was doing in the game, it was very hard not to notice that. It is very hard not to pick someone that is carrying then more balls than anyone else or getting four or five turnovers a game. You start becoming someone you have to put on a team sheet. That was my goal. I was saying if I make an impact in this game, they will have to pick me.
He was on the Leinster squad that won the 2009 Heineken Cup but he didn’t play in final
I featured in the semi-final and featured a handful of times before that. I had a very positive ten minutes in the semi. I was happy with what I had done. The final was a colossal game. A very tight game and I probably knew going into it that unless someone got an injury I might not be used. I still felt I was very part of it. You want to be a major part of it, not just a squad player. You want to be a starter and drive the whole set-up. Go and win things. Be a big part of it.
Three unbelievable years with Leinster, Ireland and then Lions. Did it all happen quite quickly?
From 2011 is where I took off, that season, I was pretty well-known at that stage and pretty unstoppable as well. It took teams a few years to figure out how to handle me. Then the Lions came in 2013 and I had three really good years of starting and being a big influence in the teams I was in. Once you are playing at that level and starting with Leinster the whole time, and playing with Ireland, your profile rises.
I don’t know if it came around too quickly. I think it was probably well-timed with my career hitting milestones.
I think the game against the Dragons where I scored my first try. That is where people might have said, ‘hold on now, this could be something good here’. Scoring that try that day was good. I had a little bit of everything in that game. I had a few carries, a few turnovers. I was busy in the tackle area. That is where maybe people said ‘this lad is going to be the real deal’.
The 2011 World Cup propelled me to another level. I was in great form going into that. What gave me my most satisfaction was my first cap but in terms of going to another level it was probably that World Cup. I said to myself about being one of the best players in the world at this stage. I think in 2011 in the World Cup I was certainly up there and playing really well.
I played some of my best rugby in 2017. Especially in that Lions tour. Unfortunately after that, and I often say those tours take it out of your body, I started to pick up injuries. Two months after that my hips started to give me trouble. It was probably the last time I could play to the level that I could play at. I could not have played any better during that Lions tour. Even without the test games.
The only one thing that I missed out was not playing the quarter-final of the World Cup in 2015. Missing that Argentina game (because of suspension) was a sore one for me. That was tough to take. We had a lot of injuries in that game and I genuinely believed in myself at that time, and even today I believe if I was on the team that day we would have won. Because I was playing so well it was just a real killer for me not being there to help the lads get over that kind of quarter-final which eluded us for so long.
It was an emotional time for me. I always thought I would stay there forever. My hip the way it was, from a business point of view, it was not really Leinster’s decision either, it was more the Union. I was on an IRFU contract, not a Leinster contract. Coming off an IRFU contract, Leinster don’t have those kind of finances to fill the gap. I knew coming off the IRFU contract and not getting an IRFU contract I was going to have to leave. My value was still pretty high even though I was having this hip re-surfacing. I needed to make a decision to stay whether I stayed there for the sake of staying there or going..
I had given everything I could give to Leinster and to Ireland. It was time to look after me and my future. It was a very emotional time. There was a lot of highs and lows around that contract negotiation.
It has been a journey. It has been a project for sure. We have obviously played some brilliant rugby this year which is where we want to get to. We are probably not consistent enough in our defensive game yet to keep pushing. But it is something we are working on and trying to evolve. It has been a project. I am enjoying life. The people over here have been brilliant. Very welcoming. The club have been very good and everything has been good since I came over here.
Living in London
Nothing like that will faze me. If I am here to do a job, I will go and do it. It wouldn’t bother me. It would have to be very bad for it to be upsetting me. I would have to be very unhappy not to be in a good place with it. Once I am busy I am happy enough. I am busy over here.
Are you financially secure?
It is not that you are financially secure. I have the rest of my life to live. I have to start from scratch again. Whatever I am going to do it is going to be brand new to me. While rugby has been good to me, this is only the start of it- hopefully for me.
Playing with Tullow in the future?
100% if I was in Ireland. If I wasn’t staying here to work or in the process of sorting out a few things at the minute. If I was home I would definitely play for a year or two while I still can but we will see what happens.
If I go home, I will definitely evolve the farm and try to create a brand of some sort. I have a plan in my head if I do go down that road. That is always in the back of my mind as such. I like farming. I will not say it is a full-time occupation any more. I don’t think it is very feasible for that kind of work but I think it is a great way of life and I love elements to it.
I suppose home never leaves you. It shouldn’t leave you. I try to embrace everything which goes on in the area. I try to help out. If I was in a situation or over a charity in years to come and looking at a young fellow coming through I would certainly hope to help out as well. Especially coming from a small area like Tullow in Carlow. Every little bit helps. I have always tried to be involved in the community. To help out as much as I can. I probably get a lot of that from my Mam’s side of the family. My Mam would do something else before she would look after herself. I think that is in me as well. I like to help people. I like to give a hand. I like to be involved. Anything I could do, I hope I helped in any way I could.
Maurice Logue-The Tullow manager who led them to the 2017 Provincial Towns Cup final win
I have a great relationship with Maurice. I really like coaching with him. That could be something down the line. We might get back together at some point. I enjoyed that journey with the boys. I think there is still another couple of cups with Tullow with some of the guys who are coming through. There is a pretty new team out this year. I know it has been frustrating for them. Lads are moving on, lads have kids, lads are getting married. I suppose it is building lads for the future. I definitely think there is more than one cup in Tullow anyway. Hopefully, we will see that in the next few years.
The repercussions of playing with the Fighting Cocks after signing for Leinster
I knew I was a professional sportsman. I probably didn’t realise how people would react to me playing a game of football in the summer. It was a realisation that everyone is watching your every move. That was part of the journey.
SEAN O’BRIEN’S CAREER
September 2008 debut against Cardiff Blues in the Celtic League.
He featured in Leinster’s 2009 first Heineken Cup campaign and was an integral part of the team which won the 2011 Heineken Cup against Northampton Saints in Twickenham.
He scored a try when Leinster retained the Heineken Cup against Ulster the following year.
He was part of the under 20 Irish Grand Slam winning team in 2007.
He made his senior debut coming on as a replacement against Fiji in the RDS in November 2009.
He started every game for Ireland in the 2011 Six Nations Championship, winning the Man of the Match award against Italy.
He started for Ireland against Australia, Russia, Italy and Wales in the 2011 World Cup. He was ranked among the top five players in that tournament.
He played for Ireland in the 2015 World Cup but lost out on a place in the quarter-final against Argentina because of suspension.
He played for the Lions in the summer tour of Australia in 2103 and on the 2017 New Zealand trip he scored one of the great Lion’s try which ignited the test series.
FROM Community Games rugby to playing with the Lions, Sean O’Brien, aka the Tullow Tank, has achieved almost everything that was possible to achieve in a glittering career which has taken him all over the world.
His announcement that he is to retire from professional rugby at the end of the season came as a shock but for Tullow’s favourite son it gives his many admirers a chance to pay tribute to one of Ireland’s greatest ever sportsmen.
Tom Nolan – President of Tullow when they won the 2017 Provincial Towns Cup
He did a huge amount for our club when he was coaching with Larry Canavan. That saw us rise up through the leagues where we could compete properly for Towns Cups. There was the knowledge Sean brought from Leinster having trained under Michael Cheika. He didn’t have to but he did. He is still a big part of the club. He will still ring every week, twice a week, to find out what is happening.
The seconds are playing today. He was on the phone today. He still has a big involvement.
I offered him the coaches job when Maurice (Logue) leaves and I am waiting on his response. I am not sure of his immediate plans. He has a few irons in the fire. Maybe he will play?
He never said no to anybody. I don’t know how he stayed going all the time. A million miles an hour all the time. Doing charity work, seeing people who wanted to talk to him individually. He has the strength of his father, the kindness of his mother. That is him.
I think the Lions was a stand-out moment. That is the pinnacle of anyone’s career. In conjunction with getting off the plane after the Lions tour he came down to our dinner dance. A massive moment to see him walk in with the jersey in his hand. It has been some journey. He saw lads wanting to get up there too if they wanted to. His family are a massive part of the club and he will continue to do so.
Paddy Browne – President of Tullow 2021-22.
I am not really surprised he has retired. He always said he would do three years in London Irish and he has done it. He is going out with his head held high. He said that at some stage in the future , it can’t be next year, that he might play a season with Tullow. We look forward to that. He wants to play in the backs. It was said one Christmas over a drink so hopefully he means it. I think he does.
He did so much for the club, coaching the underage but there are a lot of us who remember going to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Twickenham. All those games. We had some of our best days out on the back of Sean O’Brien.
It is unthinkable what pride he has brought. We have 200 mini players out there now and Sean’s name is critical to that. He is a fantastic person. No-one realises how much he has given back, what he has given to the community, to the whole county. Carlow, Tullow. He is a wonderful man.
Charlie Ward – Connacht, Buccaneers and former Tullow player
When you see Sean going to play with Leinster it gave you hope you didn’t have to come from a schools system. You can be a club player and make it. He always helped, giving me texts seeing how we are getting on. He always looked out for you.
He would look after you when you were playing 20s. When I was going into the sub-Academy he would always be looking out for you. He gave advice, and it made a big difference.
Maurice Logue-Manager of the 2017Tullow Provincial Towns Cup winning team who is still with the club.
Sean was heavily involved that year. He had a bit of an injury in 2017 and he was certainly around the club a lot. He was a real integral part of that Towns Cup win. He had a massive part to play in it.
When I first met Sean, he said he would be down a bit. Lots of people say that but true to his word, he was down. He was with the under 13s, he was with the women, he was with the seniors. Even when he was over in London Irish I think he had 3-4 training sessions lined up with the women, the under 18s and was at our sessions.
He is one of a generation, not just as a player but as a person. His commitment to the club. He put Tullow on the map as a high profile player. He never lost that love for the club. He is absolutely brilliant. I would still be in contact with him looking for advice.
If he came back it would be a huge addition. As a coach he is very astute. He has a great knowledge of the game as he has played at a very high level. He has so much. It is not just his coaching ability. He has such a great personality. He is just driven.
By Kieran Murphy