Rugby World Cup: O’Brien opening up new chapter for Ireland
It is a running joke among rugby players. Just as journalists take bets on how many times they will be fed the line “under no illusions” or “one game at a time”, players have a tendency to nudge and wink whenever they hear the question: “So, what’s your favourite position?”
Isa Nacewa broke into weary laughter a few years ago when asked at a Leinster press conference and commented that he must have been asked the same thing “a thousand times”.
And, it is hard to forget Riki Flutey grabbing a microphone and mockingly impersonating a reporter by asking Luke Fitzgerald what his favourite position was during the 2009 Lions tour (a more pertinent question would have been to ask Flutey what the hell he was doing on the tour as a mercenary Kiwi who had played against the Lions four years previously).
It is a question Sean O’Brien has fielded many times and there is a reason it keeps coming up with skilful, versatile players — people are fascinated by the answer.
O’Brien is a player defined by his ball-carrying ability and the thinking has been that, at openside, his capacity for busting tackles is reduced by the requirement to be scrapping on the floor. ‘Devastating at 8, a wrecking ball at 6, wasted at 7’ has been the perceived wisdom over the past three seasons and it has been backed up by on-field evidence.
When asked the positional poser, players may or may not offer a favourite role, before adding the stock addendum that they would “play anywhere, just as long as I am in the team”.
The Irish haven’t had a world-class, traditional openside since Nigel Carr was forced into an early retirement by the IRA in 1987, with Irish/Australian Keith Gleeson coming closest in the early 2000s.
It is not a country known for producing a steady stream of natural 7s, in the manner of Wales (Richie Collins, Martyn Williams, Sam Warburton), Australia (George Smith, Phil Waugh, David Pocock) or New Zealand (Michael Jones, Josh Kronfeld, Richie McCaw).
There are a few knocking around, Shane Jennings has excelled there for Leinster, where Dominic Ryan looks like a serious international prospect.
Johnny O’Connor still has the moves in Connacht and Willie Faloon in Ulster and Munster’s Peter O’Mahony look like they have the capacity to be quality opensides at the highest level, though both are played elsewhere.
However, Ireland do not have access to anyone of the calibre of Pocock, McCaw or the world’s finest, Heinrich Brussow, when it comes to an out-and-out scavenging openside.
What Ireland does have, is a world-class back-row of Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and O’Brien at 7 and one that showed last weekend in the victory over Australia that it can still dominate without a natural ‘fetcher’ in the ranks.
The caveat is that, the Irish trio did not have to deal with Pocock, who they had planned for all week, with Jennings filling the role in training. However, so exact were the Irish tactics at the breakdown and in their capacity to win turnovers through the ‘choke’ tackle that even Pocock’s presence would have been unlikely to have made a difference — something O’Brien certainly believes.
“The job was the exact same, it didn’t matter who they had there, you just get on with it,” he stressed yesterday.
But for the awful injury to David Wallace in the final warm-up international, Ireland would have four world-class back-rows at the World Cup and a quandary over who would make the final three.
Last Saturday, O’Brien’s performance was very reminiscent of Wallace, sharing breakdown duties with his colleagues while still regularly getting on the ball to hurt the opposition with his carries.
“It’s up to me to work hard on the field and if the opportunity comes to carry, then carry,” said O’Brien. “And that’s what happened, the game was slowing and we were handling well so I was happy enough (to carry).
“We (the back-row) are used to playing with each other in training, we’ve been together over the last couple of weeks and you know where your opportunities might arise on the field and it just happened at the weekend.
“I was happy with the contribution and carrying and all the other stuff.”
Ireland’s back-row play is very much a combined effort, with duties shared (Heaslip was on the deck winning turnover ball just before the final whistle last Saturday) and O’Brien believes in these circumstances, the number on your back becomes almost irrelevant.
“You have to be able to adapt to being in different positions on the field, you can’t just say, ‘oh, this is my job’, you have to adapt to certain things that might arise during the game and all the back-rowers nowadays are able to do that, regardless of where they play,” he said.
“You learn as you go along. It’s a thing you pick up and a thing you have to have within your own game.
“Obviously, your first phase ball is important and you do whatever you have to do to latch onto that but after that, it’s heads up and play what you see and read the game.”
An inter-changeable, multi-dimensional back-row? It is a pretty attractive proposition from an Irish perspective and will be put to the test over the next few weeks.
For O’Brien, the old ‘what’s your favourite position?’ suddenly does not seem to matter as much.