Belfast Telegraph

Henshaw is a major inspiration as I aim to make mark: O'Brien


Looking up: Leinster ace Conor O’Brien is determined to seize his opportunity with Robbie Henshaw on Ireland duty
Looking up: Leinster ace Conor O’Brien is determined to seize his opportunity with Robbie Henshaw on Ireland duty
David Kelly

By David Kelly

Whatever happens between now and May, Conor O'Brien won't find it difficult to forget his European debut against Toulouse.

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Probably because there was nothing much to remember in the first place.

"I fell off Cheslin Kolbe. That's about it really," smiled the Westmeath man.

In fact, he reckons he made just as much of an impression in an earlier European bow; as a mascot a decade earlier.

"It was U11s or U12s for Mullingar and I played at half-time in that exact fixture. I got three or four minutes both days. I suppose it is progress," he said.

Three minutes might be the summation of his debut season in the Champions Cup; he didn't feature in Wasps last Sunday and should Leinster's squad retain rude health, that scenario is unlikely to change much.

But then again, when he started the season he wasn't even in the 41-man European squad.

The 22-year-old has stealthily eaten up the ground once established by others to frank his status as a viable option in midfield.

Since making his debut in October, the final-year academy player has impressed in all seven PRO14 outings; he will make his eighth against the Scarlets in the RDS this Friday.

And he did enough in a festive hat-trick of appearances to ensure his name was added to the list of those leading Leinster's Champions Cup title defence.

Such are the numbers involved though, momentum is difficult, particularly when there is the formidable figure of a Lion, Robbie Henshaw, blocking your path.

However, that particular cat is away and this will allow O'Brien to play.

"It's difficult to get momentum," he said. "Most players would have an issue with that professionally when it's a competitive environment, especially for a young lad like myself just coming onto the scene this year.

"You get a run of a couple of games and you are trying to take every opportunity. There is a bit of pressure on you but I love it.

"It's putting good pressure on you that you have to perform but at the same time the coaches will try and create the environment to push you as much as they can."

And even though he played all but three minutes of the last fortnight, in Leinster's scheme of things, he was playing - for the opposition; in training, seeking to mimic every move. At the very least, his involvement lessened the disappointment; the competitive edge was still burning.

"You have to be realistic. Robbie Henshaw is a Lion and so you can't be disappointed when he comes back in and pushes you out of the team," he said. "I learn a lot from Robbie in training and regardless of whether you are playing or not you try and help prepare the 23 as best you can.

"Everyone is preparing in their own way. The 23 and especially the starting 15 is the most important but everyone has to be switched on. I was 24th man in Munster and I was called upon five minutes before kick-off; you have to be switched on."

Henshaw remains at once a rival and an inspiration.

"He's a really big role model for me. We are both footballers from Westmeath playing rugby," he added. "Our attributes are similar, so he's the perfect person to have there to look at.

"When he is running around you in training you learn fairly quickly to stop him or try your best to stop him. It's unbelievable to have him there and he's a lovely lad as well.

"He's an unbelievable talent. That's what I'm striving for. He was the man in my way when we first came into the academy.

"Trying to get up to that level, I wouldn't have considered until you'd asked me these type of questions about being picked for Champions Cup. I was playing for Clontarf last year. But every little bit of progress is good."

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