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'Crooked fingers and a nose that can't smell much, but it's fine'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Sean O’Brien beamed his best smile when asked the other day by RugbyPass how his body is feeling with the curtain set to fall on his stellar playing career this Saturday when London Irish visit The Rec. As wonderful as it has been watching his prodigious talent in full flight ever since making a September 2008 debut for Leinster, his time in the game was also blighted by multiple serious injuries.

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So many column inches over his years with his native province and also with Ireland, the Lions and the Exiles were dedicated to medical bulletins and projected recovery details. It is a testament to his stubbornness and his inspired determination that despite these repeated setbacks he lasted 14 seasons. 

All the more heartwarming is that he will walk away on his own terms at the age of 35 without any major lasting damage. “I have got out it right bar something happening this weekend. I’m touching wood here,” quipped O’Brien ahead of his final run out for London Irish. 

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“That is the really nice thing about finishing now as well with all the speculation around my body and health and injuries over the years. I work hard on it, I work hard to mind myself as best I can. I still think I’m 25 in my head at times out there but then something reminds me that I’m not. 

“It’s in good shape. I feel good, I feel strong. I am hopefully leaving with everything intact. Obviously, you have the normal stuff, you have a few fingers that are crooked and a nose that you can’t smell too much through but other than that it’s fine.”

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It was April 8 when O’Brien took to social media to announce his retirement this weekend at the end of his third season with London Irish. At the time he explained it was just a realisation on his part that he wanted a normal life but exactly what is a normal life for the former Ireland star who enshrined himself in Lions legend when finishing off the length-of-field try versus the All Blacks in Auckland in 2017? 

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“I just think it’s more so you have your weekends back. I’m quite an intense character during the week, I try to keep pushing things as much as I can within the environment and try and keep lads getting better and try and keep my own standards very high at training. Normal life will be a lot less pressure in terms of me putting it on myself, me putting it on other people around me. 

“And then just having your weekends, not missing weekends, connecting with old friends that I have drifted away from over the years. There are a lot of bits and pieces. I suppose I see my two best friends at home, they meet up maybe on a Friday or Saturday evening for two hours, have a couple of pints and off home with them back to their families. 

“So small things like that are stuff that I missed for the last ten years. I’m looking forward to just having a bit more freedom and a bit less structure in my life probably is normal life for me. I’ll get back home and do a bit of farming as well hopefully at some point or if I don’t get back home I’ll find a farm over here somewhere to have a bit of work on.”

With the season at London Irish ending, O’Brien had a taste of what those weekends will be like when visiting Jersey last weekend for a veteran’s match involving his brother Stephen and he will likely be at it again next weekend when Leinster go in search of their fifth star in Marseille in their latest Heineken Champions Cup final appearance.

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“I will probably be in Marseille, not on a jolly now but I could be working there,” he said, adding what he got up last weekend in the Channel Islands. “I was down there at the veteran’s game, went to see my brother Stephen play. That was a great day, a massive event in Jersey, a real good atmosphere around. 

“I have been over there most summers so it’s good to catch up with lads like that as well. While I was only there for the day, I flew back that evening to London, it was great craic, great fun and a great buzz around the place.” 

How would O’Brien like to be remembered as a rugby player who wowed at Leinster, Ireland, the Lions and London Irish? “I just think someone who has given it all to the game in terms of whenever I could. That is important to me. I think I have left everything out there and I hope people think that as well.”

They do judging by the feedback received in the six weeks since he revealed his intention to hang up the boots. “It was very humbling to see the amount of support and the amount of good messages that are coming your way. There are so many really, really nice, genuine people out there. It reminds you of putting smiles on faces during games and giving people entertainment, it kind of came back to me when people were messaging me about it.

“It’s quite a nice feeling to have, that you have done that over your career, you have entertained people, you have given them inspiration, young people from my own club (in Tullow), young people from the south-east of Ireland, bits and pieces like that. It does mean a lot to me to know that I entertained in some shape, way or form and left rugby in a better place.”

O’Brien wasn’t 100 per cent certain about what he will do next when he did London Irish media on Thursday before packing up his gear back for one final match. He has options to go into coaching. Some business avenues also exist and he promised to talk it all through in the coming weeks and reach a definite decision. 

The thing is if not missing weekends with friends and family is potentially a perk of his retirement from playing, wouldn’t coaching kind of put a stop to that freedom? “It’s a different type of rugby stress, a lot more organisation and planning goes into it rather than being a player and then the bit of messaging that you try and portray as a coach are completely different to the ones that you try and portray as a player. 

“So if I go down that route it will be a learning curve as well but it is something I have managed pretty well over my career in terms of managing people, delivering messages in the right tone and the right way and that is just something that if I do go into that coaching role, whether it be here (in England) or at home that it’s something I will have to learn. 

“I always think when you are changing careers or starting a new job you are an academy graduate again so there is a lot to learn the whole way through this process if I go down that route but having coached since I have been in my early 20s, I think I have enough game knowledge.

“Having played at the level I played at I have seen what good and bad looks like in the different set-ups so I hopefully can pull on some of that experiences as well to help me if I go down that route,” he said, adding that he has spoken to numerous old teammates about their transition away from playing and into a different career.

“The main thing I have got out of it is to get into something that you enjoy straight away because with rugby and playing it for so long, it’s an enjoyment. Maybe lads don’t think you are enjoying it because you are driving things but it’s an enjoyable environment to come in and see all the boys in the morning, have a bit of craic, have a bit of a skit with each other, a bit of banter throughout the day so I will miss that.

“I will miss it in the changing room, having that bit of fun with the boys, so it’s making sure that whatever I am doing outside of rugby now when I finish that I am actually enjoying it and I am adding value wherever I am in business or rugby. That is what I am going to try and do. I am going to try and enjoy it and soak it all up.”

We wish him well in whatever he does. Thanks for the many memories, Seanie. 

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