Alpha dog with a bone simply refuses to let it go
Published 16/02/2014 | 17:00
For ten years and more the England rugby team has prepared for Ireland with two names prominent among their priorities.
Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell would have loomed large in their analysis, and in their subsequent plan of action.
They will feature again this week as the home side gets set for next Saturday's showdown at Twickenham. Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton will surely come under the microscope too.
But another player in green might well be the number one subject of conversation in England's video room. They will have studied Peter O'Mahony's combative work against Wales last weekend. And if it seriously aggravated the Welsh at the time, it has probably already antagonised the English too.
One can easily imagine their back-row forwards, in particular, making solemn vows that the Cork man is not going to be as influential this time round. Except they won't articulate it quite so formally. A player as brazenly destructive as O'Mahony is usually referred to in fairly rough language by those who are about to face him.
One way or another, the England players and management will be insisting with absolute conviction that there's no way he's going to be allowed get away with that level of interference, not against them and certainly not on their home turf.
This specific battle has symbolic importance as well as practical consequences. If the breakdown is the cockpit in which modern rugby matches are won and lost, then O'Mahony under no circumstances can be allowed to dominate in this crucible. He has become the market leader here, an alpha dog in rugby's frontline theatre of combat. If he is muzzled, it sends a signal to all the other troops in the field – theirs as well as ours.
It won't be in the least bit surprising therefore if, at the very first infringement on the deck, a couple of players in white converge on O'Mahony for some afters, no matter which way the referee blows it. They'll be wanting to let him know that his card is marked. They'll be wanting to let him know that they're not going to tolerate his thievery, and malevolent intent in general, on their ball. They may well have an early dust-up with him as part of their pre-match plan.
But, as Mike Tyson was once fond of saying, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
And in O'Mahony they are facing a player who is in the form of his life. What's more, he is completely engineered, in body and mind, for exactly the kind of confrontation they will have in store for him.
If boxing is the hurt business, rugby union isn't too far behind. Survival isn't just about dishing out the punishment, but taking it too. O'Mahony, like a lot of them these days, is as much masochist as sadist: going in where it hurts is a two-way street. And he seems to relish it all, the giving and the taking.
Some of the worst abuse he routinely soaks up is from his own team-mates. It's become a familiar scenario already in his young international career. An opponent is brought to ground and O'Mahony clamps down on him, backside in the air like a polar bear burrowing through ice for an unsuspecting seal. The opposition is penalised for not releasing and he is showered with slaps of approval before he even has time to get his head back out of the fetid pile of bodies in which he's been rummaging.
In the 48th minute last Saturday, he once again did the trick. Wales had mounted 13 phases in attack and were on Ireland's five-metre line when O'Mahony's head, neck and shoulders disappeared below sea level. Three opponents launched themselves at him. They couldn't dislodge him, the ball did not emerge on the Welsh side. Referee Wayne Barnes pinged them and O'Connell descended on his still upside-down team-mate, batin' the back off him with slaps that would've felled a lesser man.
O'Mahony probably didn't feel them; he was zoned out from all other realities except the reality of the battle.
Sixteen minutes later, he was on the wrong end of a decision, pulled for swiping at a player who was airborne in a lineout at the time. Various Welsh players, thoroughly fed up with him by now,
queued up to berate him while he sat on the floor, pleading his innocence.
Barnes decided to have a word. "Listen." But he wanted to talk too. "Stop," said Barnes. "I didn't mean to," gasped O'Mahony, his lungs heaving. "Stop." "To be fair." "Stop!" "Know what I mean?" "Stop!! Contact's in the air, ok? I'm going to talk to (the Welsh player) about his reaction, but don't get up and scream at me." "There's two players retaliated at me." He was vexing Barnes by now too. "Okay, if you carry on I'm gonna put you in the bin, do you understand?"
Finally the penny dropped. "Ok, sorry, I apologise," replied O'Mahony. Rugby players, no matter how menacing, become chastised schoolboys when the referee scolds them, perhaps reminding them of their old schoolmaster, who was always stern but fair.
In any event, it was a reminder to O'Mahony that sometimes you have to let go, because you can't win every skirmish. But, at 24, he still believes he can. And England will have a job on their hands persuading him that he can't.
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