Gareth O’Brien Discusses His Prolific Season
During Round 14 of the 2019 Betfred Championship, Gareth O’Brien scored his 300th point in a Toronto Wolfpack jersey. Given he didn’t join the Club until seven weeks into the 2018 Season, the achievement is a remarkable one.
2019, a year that also saw the nine-season Rugby League veteran play his 200th game, has arguably been the best of O’Brien’s career. Sitting second on the Club’s try-scorers list and out in front as total points scorer due to his efficiency from the kicking tee, the fullback has been rewarded for his consistent performances recently winning the Betfred Championship Player of the Year.
Gaz was up for the award against two teammates in Andy Ackers and Jon Wilkin, but is quick to point out that there is really only one thing that matters both for him personally and for the Wolfpack in the coming weeks.
‘We got the League Leader’s Shield which is a big achievement but our main focus is on the Playoffs and promotion to the Super League, that’s what we set out to achieve. There’s hard work to do between now and then but we are ready to go. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved so far but our job’s not done.’
The disappointment of last season’s loss in the Million Pound game against London Broncos still resonates with the Wolfpack squad but O’Brien is able to take positives from the two-point defeat that denied his side promotion to the Super League.
‘The Million Pound Game wasn’t meant to be; London deserved the win. It was a blessing in disguise. It might have been a bit too early to go up last year, we are in a much stronger position this year I think with the right people in the right positions at the Club.’
One of those people is Head Coach Brian McDermott, who is in his first season as the Wolfpack’s Head Coach. McDermott has achieved genuine success as both a player and coach throughout his unparalleled career and has clearly had a huge impact on the Toronto playing group in a relatively short place of time. A hard task-master, McDermott is uncompromising when it comes to elite standards and his ability to form meaningful relationships with the players under his care is being reflected each week on the scoreboard. O’Brien can’t help but smile when asked about the effect McDermott has had on him personally and the Club as a whole.
‘He has definitely got us playing a different way. It’s a lot more off-the-cuff, play what we see. We can still fall into that structured play but Brian encourages us not to rely on that. He’s definitely brought another level of professionalism into the Club and the boys are buying into it.’
Gifted with natural flair and an innate knowledge of the game, O’Brien loves the freedom the role of fullback, and his supportive coach, provides when he takes the field. Often tasked with bringing the ball back up-field from deep within his own defense, O’Brien’s instinctive style of game can leave defenders tackling air as he creates space where there seemed to be none.
‘The off-the-cuff stuff is a lot more difficult to defend because if we are unsure where we might be going next, then defense is definitely going to be unsure. I like playing on reaction and trying to anticipate what’s going to happen next.’
It is this attitude, coupled with a constant thirst for improvement that has seen O’Brien tear the Championship apart in 2019. Taking the field in 25 of a possible 27 fixtures, he has tallied 22 tries and contributed almost 100 points from the boot alone through conversions and penalties. His impressive points tally of 268 is the highest in the Championship and makes up a quarter of the Wolfpack’s total points scored.
While there is no formula to determine what conditions will encourage a player to thrive, Toronto is clearly a city that has O’Brien feeling at home and that may well be a factor in his stunning form-line throughout the regular season.
‘I jumped at the opportunity to join the Wolfpack. I’ve got family in this part of the world as well and I’ve been able to catch up with them after not seeing them for 15 years. Off the field it’s been great, on the field it’s been great.
‘The fans over here are so friendly, they will always stop you for a chat and I admire the way they treat opposition teams. There’s no disrespect, even if we are on the losing end. It’s all about enjoying the day, enjoying the game, enjoying the sport and I think the city has embraced us as a new team.
‘They love their contact sports here; it’s such a sporting city. So for us to be in the Super League would hopefully attract even bigger audiences in this part of the world.’
Having been on both the winning and losing sides of big games, including promotion battles and relegation clashes, O’Brien will be bringing that experience to the 2019 Playoffs Series as the Wolfpack make a play for history in becoming the first transatlantic team in the top-flight Super League.
‘It’s what you play the sport for – to be in the big games. Any sort of Grand Final you want to be a part of. There’s no better feeling than being on the winning side of that. The sense of togetherness you get from a big win is why we play the game and I am looking forward to the Playoffs.’
With so much at stake and the stumble at the final hurdle in 2018 still fresh in many of the players’ minds, it could be easy to become overwhelmed at the enormity of the task at hand. O’Brien is not one to shy away from the pressure however, he is a classic example of the old adage that the best players want the ball in their hands when the game is up for grabs.
Given the astounding season he has put together to date, there is little doubt that his teammates and coaches walk a little taller as a result of the fullback’s presence on the ground. Experience has taught O’Brien that Playoff Rugby is a different ball game but the best way to deal with that is simply to embrace the challenge and enjoy it.
‘I get nervous before any game, whether it’s Round 1 or a Final. It’s good to be nervous because you know you are ready and switched on. Once the balls kicked, you just try to put it all to the back of your mind and treat it as another game. The stakes are a lot higher in Playoffs but that’s pressure we put on ourselves and we’re professionals, we’ve got to deal with it and I’m sure we will.’