Sean O’Brien – dubbed ‘the spearhead of Ireland’s physicality’ by double Rugby World Cup winning back-row Jerome Kaino – starts against the All Blacks for the first time since a man-of-the-match performance in 2013’s heartbreaking defeat to the same opposition.
The 29-year-old Leinsterman has enjoyed some memorable performances over the years and after excelling against Canada last weekend, he takes on a New Zealand side reeling from Ireland’s historic victory in Chicago.
Here we take a look back at five of the Guinness PRO12 star’s best moments for Leinster and Ireland.
Ireland 22 – 24 New Zealand (Autumn Internationals 2013)
As Ireland raced out to a 19-0 lead, O’Brien was at the very heart of their stunning effort. He carried the ball seven times and dominated each collision, providing the momentum for Joe Schmidt’s side.
He crashed over for a try inside ten minutes and as the All Black comeback gathered momentum, he made 16 tackles without missing a single one, constantly slowing up the fast ball that is so crucial to New Zealand’s game.
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It proved to be in vain however and New Zealand completed an unbeaten calendar year as Ryan Crotty scored at the death, but Kaino – who misses this weekend with a calf strain – remembers O’Brien’s immense effort.
He said: “They were a huge threat for us when you look at 2013 when we just beat them, Sean O’Brien was the spearhead of their physicality and their contesting at the breakdown.”
Scotland 10 – 40 Ireland (Six Nations 2015)
With a second consecutive Six Nations crown on the line, Ireland and O’Brien showed a ruthless edge to dominate Scotland and rack up the 21-point margin required to see them past Wales in the Championship table.
Ireland needed their best players to stand up and after captain Paul O’Connell went over early doors, O’Brien was rampant in the loose, bulldozing through tackles and claiming two tries in another significant man-of-the-match performance.
Clermont Auvergne 15 – 19 Leinster (2012 Heineken Cup semi-final)
Only one other British or Irish side – Munster – had won a European semi-final in France going into this clash and up against an all-international back-row of Alexandre Lapandry, Elvis Vermeulen and Julien Bonnaire, Leinster faced a tough day at the office.
But O’Brien, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip were all superb as Leinster fought back from 12-6 down at half-time to ensure the dream of a second consecutive European crown lived on.
Leinster 42 – 14 Ulster (2012 Heineken Cup Final)
Another major title, another O’Brien masterclass – the flanker has a knack of producing his best rugby on the big occasion.
And this all-Guinness PRO12 showdown at Twickenham was no exception. Underperformers were a rarity for Leinster at English Rugby HQ, but O’Brien managed to stand out as Leinster sealed their second consecutive European crown.
O’Brien had been European Player of the Year in 2011, but was eclipsed in the final by Jonathan Sexton’s remarkable second-half showing – not so this time around.
A first-half try established Leinster’s dominance, while he outplayed fellow internationals Stephen Ferris and Chris Henry at the breakdown to ensure Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and co had plenty of prime possession.
Ireland 24 – 9 France 2015 (Rugby World Cup Pool D)
Arguably the best of the lot, O’Brien turned in a near perfect performance to ensure the loss of O’Connell and Sexton to injury was not too keenly felt as the Irish ran out 24-9 winners and took themselves top of Pool D.
The Tullow Tank made 19 tackles and was his usual robust self at the breakdown – making one particularly memorable turnover on giant French centre Mathieu Bastareaud as Ireland led 14-6 on 60 minutes.
That was mirrored in his attacking performance, time and time again he shook off French tacklers and made masses of metres going forward.
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