How the home-loving Sean O'Brien became the talisman of Ireland

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When Sean O'Brien strolled into the Tara Arms pub in his home town of Tullow last Christmas, every jaw dropped. There was nothing unusual about the sight of O'Brien visiting his favourite drinking hole but he did not normally come dressed as Jesus Christ.

The rugby team's fancy dress Christmas party had just hit the town in County Carlow and the local bar-flies did not hold back with good-natured banter at O'Brien impersonating the Son of God. The irony of O'Brien of all people assuming the status of a deity was not lost on anyone there, though. He might be the reigning European rugby player of the year but O'Brien is unaffected by his status or any of the social trappings that go with being a professional rugby player.

"I think it's the way you start off when you're younger – you'll either go that way or you'll stay the way you are," says the Ireland flanker. "I want to stay the way I am, not get a big-head or anything. That's why I think I go home to Tullow a good bit – when you're involved down there you don't forget where you're from or what you're about, or what your values are."

When Ireland play France in their rearranged tieon Sunday, those Tullow natives who have not travelled to Paris will be shoehorned into the Tara Arms. The locals are just as proud that O'Brien has remained very much a Tullow man despite all of his achievements as they are of the renown those achievements have earned him.

For the past few years the 25-year-old has travelled home almost every other evening to coach the local rugby team where his own talent was developed, and even though he has taken a break from that commitment this season, O'Brien is still very much a home bird.

His frequent trips to Tullow are also an opportunity to indulge in the other passion in his life beyond rugby – farming.His first Leinster pay cheque was used as a down-payment on a brand new tractor, and in the last couple of years he has spent much of his spare cash updating the family farm where he walks the land and tends to the livestock whenever time allows.

"It's great because you can completely switch off from rugby, media, everything," he says. "I'd get down there and work for the day. It could be sorting cattle out, it could be feeding all the stock, it could be building a shed, you could be doing anything, all different types of jobs.

"It's good for me. It's a bit of a release to get down there. I can just tip around for the day myself and come back up at night and switch back on again for training the next morning. It's a nice lifestyle, farming, and it's the one thing in the country that's going well at the minute."

O'Brien's enthusiasm is a source of bemusement for his Leinster team-mates of a more city-slicker persuasion but they are all grateful for his regular trips to Carlow if it means he visits his gran. Last season O'Brien began supplementing Evelyn O'Toole's income by selling loaves of her homemade seeded bread in the Leinster dressing room – she now has to bulk-buy flour.

It is unsurprising that when O'Brien first moved to Dublin to the join the Leinster Academy, though, he found the culture shock hard to cope with. A farmer from Carlow had certainly never even set foot in the Leinster set-up, and O'Brien felt he had to work twice as hard as anyone else to prove he belonged.

"It was tough and it was hard for the couple of years I was there," he says. "It certainly wasn't easy. There was a lot of hard work done. There wasn't any real homesickness, though. I'm only an hour away from home so it wasn't a big job to get down there. It was grand. I adapted to it fairly quickly, after a couple of weeks. I just kicked on from there."

Kicking on from there translates as becoming one of the greatest flankers in the world, culminating in the recognition from the European Rugby Cup last year, but this season has not gone quite so smoothly because defences are far more wary of the threat he poses.

His body position and work in the ruck is improving all the time but he still looks a more natural No6 than a groundhog seven, the position in which he will play on Sunday.

The battle between the Irish back row and the impressive French triumvirate of Dusautoir, Bonnaire and Harinordoquy will go a long way to deciding the match in Paris, and O'Brien accepts the Irish still have plenty of room for improvement.

"I think we can go a little bit harder at the ruck again, you know, and improve that area a little bit more," he says. "In defence, we need to get off the line a bit quicker. The first time is the time to do it. Especially with the French, they are able to get over the gain line more than most.

"So we have to pick and choose the time, not let them get into that flow of things. Yeah, that will be big thing."

Dusautoir and co will be formidable foes but in Tullow there are few doubts about his ability to overcome any challenge. Another yarn often told is of the day O'Brien went hunting with his dog, who refused to swim into a freezing river to claim a duck that he had shot. O'Brien simply shook his head in dismay, shouldered his firearm, and waded into the river himself to claim his prize.

It was hardly a surprise then that when mention was made of a Paris "hoodoo" – Ireland have won there once in 40 years – this week he shook his head doubtfully and offered the opinion that there was no reason why Ireland "couldn't do a job" if only they worked hard enough.

Or that when the ability of the French fly-half François Trinh-Duc was extolled, O'Brien folded his arms and simply said: "I think we can get stuck into him." Sean O'Brien is a humble man, but he possesses a deep-seated belief that with enough hard work and sacrifice, all is possible. Maybe that explains the choice of Christmas party attire.