The 31-year-old Tullow man is back in Ireland’s seven shirt after a year-long absence.
THE PUMAS KNOW he’s going to be a handful, the Kiwis don’t like playing against him and his Irish team-mates have a feeling he’s going to make an instant impact on his return to Test rugby.
Sean O’Brien will be back in an Ireland jersey this evening and he’s likely to get a warm welcome at the Aviva Stadium.
The expectation is that O’Brien, who has been ticking along so far this season with Leinster, will burst into his best and loudest performance of the campaign against Argentina in Dublin [KO 6.30pm, RTÉ/Channel 4].
The 31-year-old is keen to make up for lost time, having missed Ireland’s Grand Slam success and series win in Australia last season.
His most recent Test cap came this time last year against today’s opposition, the Pumas. In the meantime, Dan Leavy has emerged as a force in the international arena and his return to the Ireland bench after recent injury travails is sure to stoke the fire underneath O’Brien even higher.
“The surprise for me is probably Sean O’Brien,” said former Ireland international Stephen Ferris on Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42 this week after Schmidt named a starting back row of O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander.
“I watched him play against Benetton for Leinster and he just got about his work, didn’t do anything too fancy, just had a solid game.
“Joe has thrown him in here to test him, to see exactly where he’s at and see if he can pick up the form of the Lions tour when he was absolutely amazing. Sean’s injury profile over the last couple of years hasn’t been great.
“I think this is the opportunity Joe has given Sean, saying, ‘Right, I’m giving you a chance here. This could possibly be your last chance’ because coming into a World Cup year, if he’s not going to perform over the next few weeks, there’s plenty of guys there that are playing superb rugby.”
O’Brien has tended to rise to challenges of this kind in the past and he is a player that Schmidt has real faith in.
Think back to Ireland’s clash with the All Blacks in Dublin in 2016, two weekends after their Chicago win, when O’Brien came into the team with very little rugby in his legs after returning from a hamstring injury and delivered a superb display.
“Seanie brings a bit of edge,” said Ireland captain Rory Best of the Tullow man. “He’s rough and he’s ready and, for years, what you see is what you get and who knows what way his body is because he shows you nothing and that’s the way he is on the pitch.
“You know he won’t take a backward step. You could throw Seanie into an international when he hasn’t played in a year and you will get the same level of performance from him because he is just mentally so tough and he expects everyone around him to be the same as him.
“That’s what he does, he drives that mental toughness, that edge, and it’s always great. You always feel when Seanie’s in the team that you have a really good chance of winning the game.”
As such, it would be no great surprise for O’Brien to produce his best performance of the season today against the Pumas and put himself in line for a start against the All Blacks in a week’s time.
The Kiwis certainly have great respect for O’Brien, even more so after his excellence on the Lions tour last year.
“I’ve got a lot of time for Sean,” said Richie McCaw, the legendary All Blacks captain, this week.
“He’s a tough dude to play against and he’s got a good rugby nous. He knows where to be but he’s a physically strong bloke as well and he certainly makes an impact.
“I always remember the 2013 game and it was one of the toughest matches I had just in terms of the physicality and the breakdown work that went on.”
Tomorrow, Pablo Matera will line out for Argentina at openside – although wearing the six shirt – as he captains his country for the first time.
The 25-year-old knows he’s likely to have his hands full playing against O’Brien.
“He’s a great player, he’s one of the best back rows in the world,” said Matera yesterday.
“At this level, you always have good back rows every Saturday and he’s a really good player. It’s going to be really challenging for sure.”
Subscribe to our new podcast, Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42, here: