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Six Nations France v Ireland: Repentant Sean O'Brien pledges to hurt Les Blues in right way

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 12/02/2016

Rest and play: Sean O’Brien takes a break from Ireland training at Carton House, Co Kildare yesterday
Rest and play: Sean O’Brien takes a break from Ireland training at Carton House, Co Kildare yesterday

For understandable reasons in the Stade de France tomorrow, Ireland's Sean O'Brien will be happy to finally turn the page from the last time he faced France.

It was that memorable day in the World Cup last October when, with the Tullow native in imperious form, he last came face to face with Les Bleus.

Ireland won 24-9 to top their pool in what was the unmistakable high point of their tournament but, rather than his brilliant performance, it was the Leinsterman's flaring temper that dominated the aftermath.

A hand landed into the midriff of an antagonistic Pascal Pape during the opening exchanges was missed by the officials but duly brought a citing post haste and, after the subsequent seven-hour disciplinary hearing, O'Brien learned that a one-week ban would see him sit alongside his injured team mates for the quarter-final loss to Argentina.

Thanks to also missing last weekend's Six Nations opening draw with Wales due to a hamstring complaint that saw Joe Schmidt err on the side of caution, that fateful Cardiff afternoon represents the last time the two-time Lion has pulled on the green jersey.

"Discipline is going to be massive," he said yesterday when asked of the incident.

"It is a key for us. I don't think I was hard done by; it was more than a tap. It was something that shouldn't have happened. That's the way it was. Moving on."

Much has changed since then of course, not least with France. His adversary Pape has exited the stage, as have a host of other senior players, while Guy Noves' reign is just one game old after he replaced Philippe Saint-Andre following the tournament.

There were new faces in their win over Italy last weekend, while six changes have been made from that side for tomorrow, but O'Brien didn't want to overstate the much discussed transformation under the former Toulouse head coach.

"I didn't really notice anything much different," he reflected.

"There was different personnel on the field but they were trying to play a lot more in open play and play the off-loading game more so than they were in the World Cup.

"Obviously they have a lot of strong ball-carriers, especially out wide."

There have been alterations for Ireland too, including one debutant last week.

The emergence of CJ Stander against Wales - Munster's South African loose forward qualified for Ireland on residency only in October - has given Schmidt another back-row option in what is, when all are fit, a real area of strength in the squad.

O'Brien is looking forward to linking with the destructive runner for a first time tomorrow.

"It might take some pressure off me for the carrying," he laughs.

"No, he had a brilliant game the last day. I'm not sure what his stats were but there were a lot of carries. He was showing up a lot of times.

"I'm looking forward to finally getting to play with him and seeing what we can do together."

The idea, however, that the squad's vice captain, and O'Brien's longtime Leinster team mate, Jamie Heaslip will be under pressure for his place is, however, met with the usual almost dismissive chuckle.

"Jamie is the most consistent player I'd say I have ever played with," he said of the number 8 whose performances can often go under-appreciated by sections of the Irish fan-base.

"In terms of his attributes in D and in attack, where he shows up, he is a very smart player and he does a lot of work.

"I think he had the second highest tackle count last week out of the forwards (actually joint top) so I don't know where people are getting that idea. His value for the team has been unbelievable and has been that way since he came into the side."

While Wales coach Warren Gatland likened last week's stalemate, and the loss of any Grand Slam or Triple Crown aspirations, as akin to kissing his sister, O'Brien acknowledges the result has given tomorrow's clash a 'must-win' designation.

"If you have any aspirations to win this tournament you have to win in France… it is that simple," he affirmed.

"That's the way I am thinking about it anyway."

Given the mathematics of the situation, no doubt so will each one of Ireland's 23.

France: Maxime Medard (Toulouse); Teddy Thomas (Racing 92), Maxime Mermoz (Toulon), Jonathan Danty (Stade Francais), Virimi Vakatawa (French Rugby Federation); Jules Plisson (Stade Francais), Sebastien Bezy (Toulouse); Jefferson Poirot (Bordeaux-Begles), Guilhem Guirado (Toulon, capt), Uini Atonio (La Rochelle), Alexandre Flanquart (Stade Francais), Yoann Maestri (Toulouse), Wenceslas Lauret (Racing 92), Yacouba Camara (Toulouse), Damien Chouly (Clermont Auvergne).

Replacements: Camille Chat (Racing 92), Rabah Slimani (Stade Francais), Eddy Ben Arous (Racing 92), Paul Jedresiak (Clermont Auvergne), Loann Goujon (Bordeaux-Begles), Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92), Jean-Marc Doussain (Toulouse), Hugo Bonneval (Stade Francais).

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster), A Trimble, J Payne (both Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), D Kearney, J Sexton (both Leinster), C Murray (Munster), J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), N White (Connacht), M McCarthy, D Toner (both Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), S O'Brien, J Heaslip (both Leinster).

Replacements: R Strauss (Leinster), J Cronin (Munster), T Furlong (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), T O'Donnell (Munster), E Reddan, I Madigan, F McFadden (all Leinster).

RBS Six Nations: Stade de France, Saturday 2.25pm



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