Leinster Build-Up To Bulls Away In United Rugby Championship – Jimmy O’Brien – The Kildare Nationalist (Online) – June 14 2024


By Daire Walsh 

There was quite a bit of logistics involved in bringing everyone together, but Jimmy O’Brien and his Leinster team-mates ultimately got themselves to South Africa well in advance of their United Rugby Championship semi-final showdown with the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria on this Saturday afternoon (kick-off 3pm Irish time).

While it was something that was regarded as a very realistic possibility in the lead-up to the game, it wasn’t until the conclusion of their quarter-final victory over Ulster at the Aviva Stadium last weekend that Leinster were assured of a knockout URC visit to the southern hemisphere. In fact, whereas Leo Cullen’s side defeated their interprovincial rivals by a margin of 23 points (43-20), Benetton almost upset the apple cart on their own visit to Loftus Versfeld for a last-eight meeting six days ago.

Had the Italians overcome the challenge of the Bulls, Leinster would have been preparing for a home URC semi-final. However, Jake White’s Springbok outfit held out to claim a 30-23 victory, setting up a mouthwatering penultimate round clash with Leinster in the process.

Although it was possible to establish a potential hotel base in the event of them having to make a trip out to Pretoria, the process of booking flights to the South African city was only able to begin last Saturday night. It was no easy feat from there, but in the end, each of the travelling Leinster players had arrived ahead of their collective training session on Tuesday.

“It was interesting enough. There were a few groups, lads on standby trying to get on flights. It’s been challenging, but everyone got here in time. 9pm Monday night was the latest to arrive. Everyone was around today [Tuesday]. It was a bit different after the game. The staff were panicking trying to book flights, but they got us all here in the end,” O’Brien remarked in a video call with the Irish media on Tuesday.

“I was with the starting backs from last weekend. We went to Dubai and had a nine-hour layover, which went pretty quickly to be fair. It was a long enough day, but not too bad.”

Having clocked up an impressive 53 appearances across the previous three seasons – scoring a not inconsiderable 18 tries along the way – the 2023/24 campaign has been a little bit frustrating overall for O’Brien.

Whilst the Eadestown native played the full 80 minutes on five occasions in the weeks that followed his reintegration to the provincial rugby scene following Ireland’s quarter-final exit at the Rugby World Cup last October, a neck injury sustained in the lead-up to Leinster’s New Year’s Day fixture against Ulster at the RDS (he had been due to start the game, but ended up being a late withdrawal) kept him on the treatment table for several months.

This ruled him out of picking up a second successive Six Nations Championship title with Ireland in the spring. Yet he eventually returned as a late replacement in the Blues’ Champions Cup semi-final win over Northampton Saints at Croke Park on May 4 and O’Brien has also started four URC games in recent weeks.

He is expected to do so again this weekend and given the number of games he missed out on, the former Newbridge College student views it as a bonus to be back in the saddle at the business end of the term.

“I have been out for half the season. It was tough to miss opportunities. When you get picked you have to play well because there are so many good players. Just looking forward and hopefully we can put in a good performance. Hopefully get a win. We know it is going to be tough.”

One of the most versatile players in the Irish game at the moment, O’Brien had started games on the left-wing and outside centre earlier on this season before subsequently taking over at full-back in Leinster’s recent victories over Connacht and Ulster.

The anticipation is that he will be selected in the latter position when Leo Cullen unveils his team for the Bulls game later on today, but with the 27-year-old also capable of playing on the right-wing, he is not particularly fussed about what number jersey he wears.

“To be honest, I’ve said it before, I don’t really mind what position I’m playing once I’m getting picked. Once I’m playing, I’m pretty comfortable across all positions. I’ve been pretty comfortable in whatever position I’m picked to play. I’m happy enough.”

Whereas the form of a rejuvenated Jordan Larmour and James Lowe meant breaking back into the team on either wing was going to be tough, the return of Hugo Keenan to the Ireland 7s set-up has opened door for O’Brien at full-back – albeit Ciaran Frawley is another option available to Cullen in this position.

Considering he also played alongside Keenan for the international 7s team for a couple of years – they were both part of the Ireland side that claimed the Challenge Trophy at the World Cup Sevens in 2018 – O’Brien fully understands the Dubliner’s decision to briefly pause his 15s career in the pursuit of an Olympic dream in Paris later this summer.

“We played together for two and a bit years at Sevens. We talked about it when he was going back. It’s a class opportunity for him. You don’t get many opportunities to play in the Olympics,” O’Brien added.

“There aren’t that many people who have played in the Olympics, it’s an unbelievable opportunity for him. I look forward to watching him. I watched the Madrid Sevens and kept texting him while he was over in Croatia at that tournament [Rugby Europe Sevens Championship]. It will be exciting to watch.”

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