It was a piece of skill some of rugby’s most distinguished players would have been pleased to sign off.
Cut to the 10th minute of the Indigo Group Premiership Cup final between Aberavon and Newport at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, with the ball fired out to the Black and Ambers’ inside center and captain Matt O’Brien, standing some nine meters inside opposition territory . Like all good footballing backs, O’Brien had already assessed his options as he was running into position, scanning the pitch and organizing as he did so.
On receiving possession, he swung around and, without looking, put in a beautifully executed left-footed crossfield kick, not quite flat but judged so finely that its intended target, wing Jon Morris, was able to collect without breaking stride en route to scoring . Call that a ‘wow’ moment and be done with it.
Read more: French giants make audacious bid to sign Wales and Lions star
But it wasn’t a one-off. “We’ve had quite a lot of success with cross-kicks this season,” said Newport director Kevin Jarvis. “Matt just has a great left peg on him. Playing the ball out wide as he did for that try against Aberavon has earned us a fair few touchdowns in recent months.”
Newport’s David Richards was the official man of the match on Sunday after a hard-running performance studded with line-breaks, while young fly-half Will Reed won lots of territory for his side with siege-gun kicking out of hand. But O’Brien was the quiet star with his ability to make the right calls, his calmness and mastery of the basics mixed with a dash of flair.
“I call him Jan Molby,” laughed Shaun Connor, like O’Brien an age-grade coach at the Dragons. “Molby was an unbelievable footballer. I remember when he used to play for Liverpool and Denmark in the 1980s and 1990s and also during his time with Swansea City. He used to sit in midfield, ping the ball to corners and put people into space. He always had time on the ball.
“Matt is similar in a rugby sense. He has a great kicking game and he’s very good at understanding when to play and how to put others into space. He’s been excellent all year for Newport.”
It’s a strange one, though. O’Brien is 29 now, a reliable goal-kicker and a sharp game-controller, but he hasn’t broken through at professional level as a player. Is there an explanation out there? Where’s Mulder and Scully when you need ’em most?
“I think he’s a bit of a late developer,” said Connor, who played more than 100 games for the Ospreys as a creative fly-half and helped pilot them to Celtic League titles in 2004-05 and 2006-07.
“In the last few years he’s really started to flourish. If he was playing at 20 like he’s playing now, he’d have been a regional player, without a doubt. I actually think coaching has made him a better player. As well as guiding the Dragons at 18s and over, he’s involved with Wales U18s. He sees the game differently now and it’s helped his own game from him. ”
Connor added: “My thinking is he’s going to be an outstanding coach. He has an eye for detail and is good at building relationships with players.” You can read more about Connor here.
O’Brien rounded off a memorable few days for a grand old club by visiting a popular Newport supporter in the aftermath of the Black and Ambers’ 25-21 win over Aberavon. He brought the cup along with him for Dave Jones, aka Dai the Hat, to see. Dave had been unwell and couldn’t attend the end. It was a lovely and classy gesture from the Newport captain and all connected to the club.
Let’s return to on-pitch matters. Ioan Dyer, an authority on all things Welsh Premiership having covered every cough and sneeze in the competition this season and plenty more before, reckons the Newport playmaker is well-placed to take the division’s player-of-the-year award.
The GTFM Radio rugby reporter said: “A lot of players have had good campaigns in the Premiership this year, including Cardiff’s Theo Cabango, Morgan Allen and Alun Rees, along with Will Reed at Newport and Llandovery wing Aaron Warren, who’s been scoring tries for fun.
“But I can’t think of another player in the league who’s been as consistent as Matt. He and Will Reed, the outside half, have worked superbly together. Matt is a quality outside-half in his own right, but with Will fitting in there, Matt has played a lot at 12 and the pair have clicked.
“I interviewed Will after the game on Sunday and he said it was good to have another playmaker alongside him, an extra pair of eyes to see what was on and create. As a young player, he said it was good not to have to worry so much about making mistakes with a more experienced player outside him and he was banking the experience and learning from it.
“The move has been good for Matt, too. He’s been a fine player for a while, but playing a lot at inside center this term, he’s taken his game to another level. He’s been top-class.
“Last weekend, David Richards played very well and was the official man of the match, but there couldn’t have been a lot in it between him and Matt. Personally, I would have handed it to Matt. That’s not to take anything away from Dai at all because he had a really good game, but Matt set up a try and scored one himself and didn’t put a foot wrong on the day. He’d be my choice for Premiership player of the year, too.”
The weekend also saw O’Brien pass a notable landmark. His try that won Newport the game hoisted him past 1,000 points for the club, a milestone reached by only three other players — Dan Griffiths (1,551), Paul Turner (1,145) and Shane Howarth (1,035) — in a club history which stretches back close on 150 years. “A points machine,” sums up Dyer.
Maybe there is more space and less pressure on a player operating in the Welsh Premiership. In fact, there’s no ‘maybe’ about it.
But it was still good to watch O’Brien last weekend. At one point near the end, I collected a pass that had dribbled along the floor into midfield. There was no panic. He simply scooped it up and put in a delicate diagonal kick to create another opportunity for Morris, turning an unpromising situation into a promising one.
And there was another point when Newport moved the ball after winning a turnover just 10 meters from their own line. But a try from that far out was never on and their lead was a narrow one. O’Brien lumped it upfield where there was no-one at home. In the heat of the moment, a less experienced player might have tried to channel his inner Serge Blanco, with a high risk of error, but it was time to play the percentages.
Connor calls O’Brien to ‘shoo-in’ the Premiership’s player-of-the-year bauble. Newport are fortunate to have him.