Kildareman Jimmy O’Brien eager to build on season so far
February 2, 2021 3:52 pm Marcus Ó Buachalla
As one left-footed full back heads off into the Australian distance, so another left-footed full-back steps into the breach.
The king is dead, long live the…
Jimmy O’Brien would be the first man to stop you there.
He is very anxious that no comparisons are drawn between him, a 23-year-old Leinster Rugby back starting out his career in blue and one of the all-time greats of Irish and European rugby in Rob Kearney.
But that’s not to say that some of that Cooley Mountain magic wasn’t thrown O’Brien’s way before Kearney headed south.
“I was playing a lot of my rugby in the centre last season but then there were chats about playing full back and doing that role so I started looking at full back last season and as a result would have trained a fair bit with Rob and looking at how he did his thing.
“I mean he is one of the great full backs so to be able to even spend a few months watching him up close and learning from him, kicking tips as well, it was brilliant because he was very generous with his time.
“He might be gone but he has definitely left a legacy here and hopefully we can live up to that as a group and as individuals.”
But what of that cultured left peg? It’s an added bonus to have in any team’s armoury.
“Yeah it is and I think having played at full back now the last few weeks you are definitely thinking more if you are playing against a team with a right footer and a left footer in their 15.
“So, knowing that you have that option is brilliant for your team. It helps the nines and 10s as well and gives them another option for the kicking game and the exits and then the flip of it as I said is that it gives the opposition much more to think about when they are setting up for a game.
“The range of kicking options open to a team with both increases and it keeps opposition defences on their toes for sure.”
Anyone who has been watching O’Brien play over the last few rounds of the Guinness PRO14 will have seen a nice variety to his game too.
Touch finders when looking to clear his lines, or kicks into acres of room in the back field, but also subtle little grubber kicks in behind for Messrs Kearney and Kelleher to chase.
And of course, he has a nice step and a turn of pace himself if needs be.
Striking the ball sweetly off the left peg isn’t as obvious to explain as the turn of pace.
“My parents are from Clonmel and it just wasn’t a rugby stronghold at all. My Dad (John) was more into athletics. Long jump and sprinting at 400m and the like. He won quite a bit at school and was an All-Ireland winner as well I think so that would be where his leanings were. He actually never played rugby at all.
“We then moved to Kildare though. Only for my uncle Toby (Sheridan) introducing him and us all as kids to Naas RFC I’m not sure where I’d be. He played rugby all the way up with the club so that was the introduction. He was onto my parents and saying ‘you should bring the lads down, it’s good craic’ and it went from there.
“My parents love rugby now but not sure they knew much about it way back then.”
O’Brien is from a family of five. There’s Mum and Dad, Caroline and John, with younger brother Patrick and older sister Megan keeping Jimmy company growing up.
Those bonds are still there, strong as ever, and while the middle sibling is creating headlines on the pitch, there is no less pride in their achievements as he explains.
“My brother and sister have been brilliant supporters of mine over the years. It’s difficult not having them around now as much. The same as all players really. We all miss family and mates at the games.
“Patrick played Senior Cup in Newbridge and loved his rugby but maybe didn’t love the gym side as much, which isn’t ideal for a flanker! Very different to me. Very physical, aggressive, loved to smash lads!
“He played a bit with the Naas 20s and hopefully will play there again soon. I’m keen that he goes back and gets involved as it would be great for more of those Newbridge College lads to go on and then join Naas.
“It’s a brilliant club so it would be great for them to have that almost formal link. He’s doing a Masters in Digital Marketing at the moment so he’s busy enough with that.
“My sister did a Masters as well in Biomedical Engineering so she is working in that field now in a healthcare company in Dublin and doing well.”
The affection for family is clear to see and their role in his development but also his affection for Newbridge College and for Naas RFC and he’d love nothing more than to see them develop the bond further so that players could stay involved and keep playing beyond school.
“It’s where it all began isn’t it and without that foundation that they give you it’s hard to follow this path and to become a professional rugby player.
“Obviously for those that make it onto the Junior and the Senior Cup teams in school it gets more serious but they also really encourage the enjoyment and a lot of my mates loved their rugby in Newbridge College and then stayed involved with Naas after it and the social element to it.
“That’s hugely important because not everyone becomes professional players and if that love of the game isn’t a key element to it as you are growing up, a lot of players would just drift. So I think massive credit to the school and the atmosphere that they build around rugby and all sports.”
It also explains his own willingness – and that of James Tracy – to go back and to give back.
“Myself and James gave a dig out last year. Just a few sessions here and there. It was great to help out and to see the lads deliver in the games that they played in.”
Is it weird to be there with the coach’s jacket and the whistle standing alongside former teachers?
“Yes!” he says matter-of-factly.
“There are a few teachers there that I would have had when I was at school and also coaches. Dave Brew is still there and I would have played under him.
“Aaron Dundon, who would have played with Leinster, when I was in fifth year he would have coached my Senior Cup team. Then Massey Tuhakaraina would have coached me at Junior and Senior cup and then he actually coached Hughie (O’Sullivan) and Hawk (David Hawkshaw) and the lads in Old Belvedere for a bit. So there are plenty of familiar faces there alright.
“But probably even stranger to be coaching lads that I would consider to be a lot younger than I am. Lads that I was on a bus with going to and from school. Them in first year and me in fifth or sixth year. The years have flown by and it’s crazy to see them now.
“It would have been brilliant to see them winning the Senior Cup last year.”
The cancelled Bank of Ireland Leinster Rugby Schools Senior and Junior Cup finals.
Newbridge College were going for a double until Covid-19 interrupted everyone’s plans.
“Reaching finals doesn’t happen easily for any school but certainly in Newbridge we have had to fight harder to reach that point so to do both in the one year was a special achievement and I think that is important for those players to remember.
“It was an achievement to get to the final and they should be very proud of that.
“I suppose it will go down as a double, of sorts, in that both titles are shared but I know they would have loved the chance to have won it outright.”
So when he was in their shoes and tearing it up in Newbridge colours who was he looking up to?
“I played in a few different positions in Newbridge and particularly at out-half I suppose but also nine and in the centre.
“But that’s what I liked. You weren’t pigeon-holed into one and then left to it. They wanted to try lads in different positions on the pitch. Develop them and their skills. Challenge them in different ways. Try to make you into a complete footballer that can play in any number of positions. It was great.
“So because of that I would have enjoyed watching a load of different players growing up. Felipe (Contepomi), I remember watching him and enjoying him and his style of play. Gordon D’Arcy as well. Rob obviously in terms of full back play. I remember seeing him on that Lions series in South Africa in 2009. He was just class.
“And even players like Geordan Murphy who built his career in Leicester Tigers but he was obviously a Kildare man, a Naas man as well. So I’d have an eye on him and what he was doing. Such a quality player. He was always talked about when I was growing up.
“You would be keeping an eye on them all and how they played and how they ran. Little things.”
There are some decent centres in that list. And not a bad full back or two either.
In his 23 caps to date there have been 15 starts. Seven starts in the number 13 jersey and eight in the number 15.
Again his experience throughout school comes to the fore and his comfort in a number of positions.
“It’s hard to say really. I like 13 and 15 to be honest. Obviously, they’re the positions that I am playing in the most so I have had time to get used to both and I really enjoy them.
“I played both wings for Leinster as well off the bench and have even covered 10 as well in pre-season games and stuff so I’m lucky in that, at the moment, I am focused on the two positions that I probably enjoy the most but look, like all the lads, when Leo offers you a role you take it with both hands but I’m definitely enjoying it at the moment.”
The next step of course from European debuts and games is the national radar and the progress of his mates is not lost on him either.
“Delighted for Hugo. I’ve known him years and have played a lot of rugby with him at Leinster and with Ireland age grade teams. He is a brilliant fella and just delighted for him and yeah, you’re right, if you can be staking a claim for a Leinster jersey regularly in the PRO14 and then in Europe, you are in the spotlight.
“It’s brilliant to see the lads taking their chances. Ed, Jamo and Lowie as well. They have all gone well and taken their chance and it is encouraging for us here to see them take those chances with Leinster and then to kick on.”
And then there is the small matter of his final year in UCD.
“Final year exams at the moment, hopefully I will be done in May. I’m a bit behind my mates who started out with me but given Covid restrictions and everything now being online I have done well the last while to catch up on a lot of things so it’s been good.”
So what does the future hold for a graduate of Financial Mathematics in UCD?
“It’s finance mainly or banking. That’s where the opportunities would be and that is where most of my classmates would be headed. So hopefully I’ll have my qualifications all sorted by May.”
And with that off he goes. Another weekend of defusing situations and coming up with the answers.
Study and exams to be done but also full in the knowledge that if the career in banking and finance doesn’t go so well, he is carving out an exciting career for himself in the blue of Leinster and who knows beyond that, maybe too, in the green of Ireland.