Leinster and Ireland flanker Sean O'Brien signs for London Irish

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Leinster flanker Sean O’Brien is expected to join London Irish after the autumn’s World Cup.

The 31-year-old back-row forward is understood to have agreed a lucrative deal to join the Exiles, who are on course to win promotion back to the Premiership.

O’Brien would risk his Ireland future with a move abroad, with the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) adopting a policy of only selecting overseas-based players in extreme circumstances.

Ireland selected Johnny Sexton during his two-year stint at Racing 92 between 2013 and 2015, but have not picked anyone based abroad since.

O’Brien’s international swansong could well now become this year’s World Cup then, after which his IRFU contract expires.

O’Brien has struggled with a string of injuries across a standout Leinster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions career, but still boasts 53 caps for his country.

The combative loose-forward also has five Lions caps to his name, and remains one of Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt’s most trusted lieutenants.

Ireland’s well-respected player welfare system ensures the IRFU can retain almost all of its top talents, with top stars given more rest than almost all their peers from other Test nations.

Ireland and Leinster would not want to lose O’Brien, but the hugely-admired flanker would not be begrudged a new challenge at this stage of his career.

Former Ireland boss Declan Kidney and ex-Ireland defence coach Les Kiss have partnered up at London Irish, and that link-up has proved central to O’Brien’s expected move.

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End of an era as Mike McFarlane reflects on Abu Dhabi Harlequins success

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Mike McFarlane (r) celebrates winning the UAE Premiership, Quins' fifth and final trophy of a stunning 2016/17, with brothers Sam (c) and Ben Bolger.

Mike McFarlane admits he has been “blown away” by all the messages of congratulations after bowing out as Abu Dhabi Harlequins head coach following an unprecedented three-and-a-half year period of success.

The Englishman’s scintillating run as Quins boss came to an end last month when the club announced he had returned home to the UK, believed to be for family reasons.

It brought the curtain down on a glorious tenure for Quins in Middle East rugby, with McFarlane overseeing a period of unparalleled dominance after taking up the position of head coach in the summer of 2015.

“Obviously the club means a tremendous amount to me and I’ve been blown away from all the messages I’ve received recently,” McFarlane told Sport360.

“From playing to coaching I have fantastic memories on and off the pitch.”

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McFarlane – a former Quins player who was forced to retire after breaking his leg for a second time in September 2013, in only his second game back following an initial 15-month layoff – instead turned his drive to coaching, and how it paid off.

Under previous coach Jeremy Manning – a former Munster and Newcastle Falcons full-back – Quins won the UAE 2014/15 UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens double. But it was under McFarlane that the club were truly launched into orbit, winning another eight trophies under the Englishman.

It was a galaxy inhabited solely by them in an unfathomable 2016/17 campaign in which Quins won the quintuple – the West Asia Premiership and Cup, UAE Premiership, Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League.

The grip on the quintuple was stubbornly relinquished in a highly-competitive 2017/18 season, encapsulated by the fact the West Asia Premiership title was only wrestled from their grasp on the final day by Jebel Ali Dragons who pulled off a miraculous bonus point victory away in Bahrain.

They retained the Champions League crown and lifted the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup. And even though Bahrain usurped them as Champions League winners this season and they suffered defeat to Dubai Hurricanes at the Sevens, McFarlane still leaves the club well placed – they have a 19-point lead over Dragons atop the UAE Premiership.

To put McFarlane and the club’s feats into context, Quins have won 10 of 18 trophies on offer in Gulf rugby in the previous four seasons – 10 of 20 if you include the two claimed already this season (the two titles in 2014/15 were achieved under Manning’s reign).

Abu Dhabi Harlequins won three straight Dubai Sevens titles from 2014-16.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins won three straight Dubai Sevens titles from 2014-16.

Quins have been fortunate to have McFarlane, who introduced a deep-seated culture of hard work and success that filtered down to all levels throughout the club.

But the departing coach admits it is he who has been the lucky one. “I’m lucky the committee gave me an opportunity at such a young age but I’d like to think I’ve repaid their faith with the senior section in a great position in UAE and West Asia with an embedded philosophy, structure and organised set-up,” added McFarlane.

“I transformed the club, but there was a revolution where three things helped to stimulate the progress. The club had a very ambitious, supportive committee led by (chairman) Andy Cole, a culture which I took time to embed through meetings with all seniors and continued integration, and the final piece was getting the best people in the right positions.

“The likes of Chris Kitchen as strength and conditioning coach and Paddy Hegarty at Vogue Fitness. I’ve always said how lucky I’ve been to be able to call on the expertise on the medical side from Patrick Milton, and bounce ideas off and observe sessions from top quality coaches such as Alistair Thompson, Rory Greene and Simon Baker.”

Of course, all the hard work and dedication paid off, with the trophies pouring in. “Winning trophies. I’m not going to hide it. I love winning as everyone does,” he added.

“Sharing the shed song with the boys is the most satisfying reward after a hard week of training and especially with a bit of silverware at the end. It doesn’t get better than that. It was a hard slog in all honesty even though it may not have always looked like that from the outside.”

And of course, the glorious 2016/17 campaign is unlikely to be repeated in UAE rugby for a long time – if ever.

“It was amazing to work with so many different players but if you want to talk about winning trophies, the 2016/17 season was beyond any expectations and we set them high,” McFarlane continued.

“It still amazes me now. It’s probably the most competitive the league has ever been. There were four or five very strong teams. To win every trophy at first team level is mind blowing.

“To share that success, feelings and memories with close friends like Ben and Sam Bolger, Phil Abraham and Luke Stevenson was very special.”

Asked for the key to his success, McFarlane added: “I guess for me it’s walking the walk. I had very high expectations of the boys and expected them to have the same of me for my sessions. It’s surrounding ourselves with the best blokes who buy into the culture.”

McFarlane enjoyed Christmas at home with his wife Mandy and daughter Madison, as well as the extended family, before taking in one final piece of UAE life, the golf at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at the beginning of January.

Now it’s onto greener pastures, although whatever McFarlane does in the future, it’s sure to still be on a rugby field.

He added: “The future for me, I have some fantastic opportunities coming up starting with Las Vegas 7s. Then I have a brilliant job lined up to start in August where I will get the chance to start the next journey.”

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Jonathan Davies set to lead Wales against Italy in Rome

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Jonathan Davies is expected to captain Wales in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash against Italy.

Regular skipper Alun Wyn Jones is set to be on the bench in a much-changed Wales team.

Head coach Warren Gatland will name his line-up on Thursday, with Wasps flanker Thomas Young poised to make his Six Nations debut in Rome.

The 26-year-old Wasps flanker, whose two previous caps were gained on tour against Tonga and Samoa in 2017, could make Wales’ matchday 23 following last week’s fightback victory over France.

Wales have a 31-man playing group at their Nice training base, and the likes of Young and Leicester back Jonah Holmes – a Test debutant earlier this season – might be involved in Rome.

The 24-19 win against France last Friday – secured after wiping out a 16-point interval deficit – was Wales’ 10th successive victory.

And if they beat Italy for a 13th time on the bounce, it will equal Wales’ all-time unbeaten record of 11 Tests set between 1907 and 1910.

Young, son of Wasps Rugby director and former Wales prop Dai Young, has been among the Gallagher Premiership’s strongest performers this season.

And the Stadio Olimpico encounter is likely to offer him an opportunity of leaving an impression early in World Cup year.

“He has been a consistent player,” Wales assistant coach and forwards specialist Robin McBryde said.

“He is a consistent performer for Wasps every week. He’s playing in a league where there are big men week-in, week-out, and the intensity is there.

“He’s had several man-of-the-match awards. In defence he makes intelligent decisions of when to compete for the ball, and in attack he links up with the backs. He is doing that here as well.

“Our training is a bit different to club level – the intensity and metres covered is up – but he has dealt with it.

“It is an opportunity for anyone down here to stake a claim and make a name for themselves. If anyone gets the opportunity, they have to take it and make the most.”

Wales again trained in glorious Cote d’Azur sunshine on Tuesday, and McBryde added: “It’s very reminiscent of Llandudno, so I feel at home!

“It has been good to recuperate after a tough match last Friday night. You couldn’t ask for better surroundings.

“But we have to be aware not to slip into holiday mode. We’ve got some hard work to do before Italy.

“Everybody realises the importance for the first two games and the momentum it can create by getting positive results.

“We can’t rest on our laurels. Italy are a tough nut to crack, and we have areas to improve on from last Friday.”

Gatland is keeping selection cards close to his chest, but it would be no surprise to see changes being made in the starting XV and on the replacements’ bench.

“Italy will be buoyed by the last 15 minutes when they came back strongly against Scotland (last Saturday),” McBryde said. “There wasn’t a lot in the game.

“They showed how dangerous they can be in attack against Scotland. They are comfortable at lineout time, so it will be a big test for us.”

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