By Damian Dolan
Sean O’Brien can finally see a “light at the end of the tunnel”. After seven months of rehabilitation, following surgery on the hip injury which ruled him out of the Rugby World Cup in Japan and delayed his debut for new club London Irish, the flanker is edging ever closer to doing what he does best – playing rugby.
O’Brien, 32, is “confident” he’ll be back to play a part in Irish’s season.
“After doing so much rehab there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that’s the exciting part for me, of getting into that phase of being introduced back to the field,” O’Brien told the Irish World.
“Whether it’s doing skills, lineouts or whatever – just getting back out there and doing what I enjoy.”
Of course, the ‘Tullow Tank’ will now not be needed to don his superhero cape, with confirmation of Saracens’ relegation to the Championship at the end of the 2019/20 season.
The Exiles will not require O’Brien to come to their rescue – Premiership Rugby have taken care of that.
But Saracens’ fall from grace has far wider ramifications for Irish. It means the club will begin life at the Brentford Community Stadium as a Premiership club, when they move in for the start of the 2020/21 season.
The importance of this cannot be underestimated as the club looks to integrate itself back into London’s Irish community, like a returning prodigal son after a 20-year absence.
Although there is now no urgency to O’Brien’s return, the player himself is eager to show London Irish, and its supporters, what they signed last year.
Recent weeks have seen O’Brien back running. The next target is to join in training with his new teammates and he says that could be as little as “two to three weeks” away.
“We’ll see how it [the hip] reacts from there. I’m feeling good and strong, and getting more mobile every week,” he said.
O’Brien cuts an optimistic figure. It’s clearly a question in his mind of when he gets back, and not if, as it was before he underwent surgery last June on the injury he’d been trying to manage since first experiencing pain in November 2017.
The procedure, which involved resurfacing O’Brien’s hip joint, was similar to the one Andy Murray underwent in a bid to save his tennis career. O’Brien called it a “shot in the dark”.
His rehabilitation has gone well, but as he says himself, each step in the road to recovery is a step into the “unknown”.
“It’s a bit of a wait and see…..how it reacts when I get back out there and actually playing rugby,” he said.
“People in different fields have come back from it no problem. There’s a few lads playing rugby with it, but not at a professional level. It’s exciting how it’s reacted so far.”
Capped 56 times by Ireland, the Carlow-native joined up with his new London Irish teammates in December when his IRFU contract ended.
Since arriving at the club, he’s made it his business to “stay invested” – he’s not been shy to “chip in” whenever he can.
“It’s frustrating when you can’t be out there helping the boys…..[but] the lads have been great, they’ve welcomed me with open arms. It’s been a really good transition,” he said.
It was Kidney, who gave O’Brien his first Ireland cap in 2009 against Fiji, who sold him on the club’s “vision” to “get back as a real contender” in the Premiership.
Indeed, it’s now more than ten years since London Irish graced a Premiership final and played in a Heineken Cup semi-final.
Having penned a three-year deal with the Exiles, O’Brien is a key component to that vision, and the club’s return to London later this year.
For O’Brien, it’s a “hugely exciting opportunity”. His signing, along with the likes of All Blacks’ Waisake Naholo and Wallabies’ Nick Phipps, Adam Coleman and Sekope Kepu, was confirmation of the club’s intent.
“It is a process, it’s not going to happen overnight, but that’s the exciting part. If this year goes well and we improve next year, then we’ll be back in that place,” said O’Brien.
On Friday, London Irish head to Franklin’s Gardens looking to end a run of three successive Premiership losses. It was a big game, but feels a little less so now in light of off field events involving Saracens.
Even so, after a start which brought wins over Wasps and Leicester Tigers, and a battling draw away to Bristol with just 14-men, the Exiles have taken just a solitary bonus-point from their last three matches.
It’s seen them slip to tenth in the table – two points clear of Leicester and 20 points of Saracens – not that that matters now.
Their last win, in all competitions, was against Bayonne in the Challenge Cup on 23 November, and they’ve now lost seven in a row.
“But that can all change with a big performance. The mood is good,” said O’Brien.
“The whole set-up has been frustrated with how we’ve started games.
“We’ve leaked a few handy tries here and there, but then we’ve played some nice rugby at times and shown glimpses of what we can do.
“So while there’s a bit of frustration there, if we get small bits and pieces right, we’ll be in a good place on the field.”
Off it, they can begin looking forward to Premiership rugby when they return to west London next season.