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Sean O'Brien has glory in his sights after missing out

By David Kelly

A year ago, Sean O'Brien spent this week in Cheltenham soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the races like everyone else in the Cotswolds.

Still, he was probably the only person there who would have preferred to have been elsewhere. His mind must have drifted to his colleagues, who were in the midst of an ultimately successful Six Nations campaign.

This year, he has tuned into the racing, but his attention has been elsewhere. Such is his focus on Ireland's trip to Cardiff, he didn't even have a bet.

The horses will be there long after he retires. Now, he is making up for lost time and a year out of the international picture just when he should have been in his prime.

"I haven't thought about horses or anything really over the last few weeks," he explains. "I was down home once or twice but this is the priority at the minute."

Life in Joe Schmidt's Ireland set-up is all-consuming and O'Brien is one of those players who has been listening to the New Zealander's voice for five seasons now since the coach arrived at Leinster in 2010.

Freshness, one imagines, is an issue - especially given the relentless drive for high standards the Kiwi demands of his players. The trade-off is the reward of silverware, and Schmidt has delivered on that front every year since arriving from France.

"I don't think it's a case of him changing things, it's a case of the players being driven," O'Brien says.

"If it's something we don't want to do, we shouldn't be there. It's about being successful, it's about playing good rugby and it's about being one team."

O'Brien's enforced separation from the national team began after the heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand and in the intervening period he watched from the sidelines as the players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht got to know Schmidt's way, claimed a Championship and embarked on the unbeaten run that will become a record with victory today in Cardiff.

"There obviously has been a step up because the team have progressed and developed a lot," he says of a set-up he rejoined at the start of this campaign.

"We've a bigger squad now, more competition for places. We've a super bench, we've a super 30-35 players to pick from and that's been the biggest difference over the last year and a half - players have gotten better under this coaching regime.

"You look at Paulie (O'Connell), Jonny (Sexton), all of the senior players driving everything around; so it's a knock-on effect."

O'Brien's return has been a frustrating one. Yet to play for Leinster after undergoing a second shoulder operation in September, the Tullow native was thrown into the fray for the Wolfhounds and, after coming through 50 minutes, was handed a start against Italy eight days later.

He felt his hamstring tighten in the warm-up and pulled out, but was fit enough for almost 80 minutes against France in round two.

Then, just as he was feeling like momentum was beginning to go his way, his head collided with England colossus Billy Vunipola's knee and the lights went out.

"It has been frustrating, ideally I'd like to have had a lot more minutes," he admits.

"I've been out for so long, you come back in at this level and it's just a lot different than when I went back into PRO12 rugby or even a European Cup game, I just haven't got a break as such yet.

"On the other hand, I've been happy to be involved, I'm there to be selected. It was a long haul to come back, so I'm not going to complain, but it has been a kind of up-and-down few weeks for me.

"Every week that's gone by I've felt that even my body shape has changed as well, you see yourself get a bit leaner.

"That happens a lot quicker with more minutes, actual games rather than training, but I do feel fitter now than I've felt in a long time and that's a very pleasing aspect considering I haven't played as much as I'd liked."

There was a time when beating France and England would give the team a free pass for the rest of the year, but the Championship is on the line and the World Cup is looming.

With this group of players, there is no scope to step off the gas.

"It's not good enough to go out and not perform. That's the expectation and the standards we set ourselves to make sure we perform every time," O'Brien insists.

"It's certainly something the players have learnt, we want to be successful and achieve big things and we have to do everything in our control to do that.

"It is getting harder to (break defences) at this level, defences are now a bit smarter, people are more physical and they're faster, so it's getting harder to break things down and make the breakthrough.

"Over the last few games we have created a good few opportunities and we haven't finished them as we'd have liked, but the main thing to take thing out of that is to try and learn."

Today, they get their chance to write their names in history with an 11th straight win and set up a second successive title next week.

Everything else simply fades into insignificance for a man making up for lost time.

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