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16th Mar 2022

‘He started boxing my leg!’ – Sean O’Brien on training ground scraps with Johnny Sexton

Patrick McCarry

“He’d infuriate you, that way.”

Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien are two lads that want the very, very best. They are two lads that will not hesitate in demanding it either.

If that leads to a couple of slaps being thrown, some harsh words being said or Andy Farrell having to tell them to “cool it”, it is all water under the bridge. Eventually. Both men know they are just pushing the buttons that need pushing to stay at the top.

Anyone that has trained and played with Sexton will tell you how he drives the standards for province and country. Anyone that watched a British & Irish Lions DVD [particularly the 2017 tour] will have seen the training ground rushes of Sexton barking and prompting.

On House of Rugby [LISTEN from 23:30 below], Sean O’Brien hilariously recalled a training ground scrap he had with Johnny Sexton during the 2019 Six Nations, and the message the outhalf sent him, later that day.

Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton is now in his penultimate Six Nations campaign, having confirmed he will hang up his boots after the 2023 World Cup. Having played with the 36-year-old for a dozen years, before his move to London Irish, Sean O’Brien knows how much he will be missed when he retires.

“He is totally invested in what he does,” he says. “He’s going to be a loss to Irish rugby and Leinster. The legacy he is going to leave behind is going to be incredible, for those younger boys coming through. It’ll be a sad day when he hangs up his boots.”

Asked by co-host Alex Goode if Sexton had ever ‘put it up to you, or gone hard at you, for getting something wrong’, a wide grin crossed O’Brien’s face.

“He definitely has. He’s had lots of cuts off me, over the years. Some of them probably justified, and some of them not.” O’Brien continued:

“We had one, before I left Ireland and leading up to that last Six Nations [2019] I played. I remember being on the opposite team, in training. I was obviously disappointed that I wasn’t starting that week [against England].

“We were only after talking about the referee, and making sure we roll away properly. And the first tackle Johnny went into, he was trapped on the wrong side. I put my leg over him. Now, I didn’t actually lean my leg on him, but he thought I did. I remember him grabbing my shin, and he started boxing my leg!

“He threw two slaps at my leg. I grabbed him by the collar, he was still on the ground and we were yapping at each other, going away. And the whole training session, he kept yapping at me. I didn’t really talk back to him that much – I was laughing at him, going around. But afterwards, he was place-kicking and he was still talking to me, giving me loads of guff.

“I remember, after it, I lost my head. I was so upset, after it. I went back to my room, at Carton House, and I was welling up. I was angry, like. I said, ‘This f***er now, he’s after having a right pop off me, for no reason’.

“Then he sent me a peace sign, later that night!

“He’d infuriate you, at times, but it was all about… because we had said, ‘Make sure your discipline is spot-on’, and he got caught in there, he hated that.”

O’Brien recalls Andy Farrell, who was then assistant coach under Joe Schmidt, approaching him during that fractious training session and saying – “‘Just settle down, will ya? Leave it, leave it, leave it’, because I was fired up and he was fired up.”

Away from the training drills, analysis sessions, run-throughs and matches, O’Brien and Sexton are good friends.

“Off the field,” he says, “everyone thinks he is this grumpy guy, because he looks that way all the time. But he’s not. Johnny is great company, great craic, great fella on the beer and a great family man.”

He also hosts a mean teammates shin-dig at his place, with O’Brien often taking the headline spot for entertainment and tunes.