O'Mahony leads way for new Munster generation
TO describe Peter O'Mahony as old fashioned is a compliment. Not for him the trinkets and trivia of modern technology. He has no time for personal entertainment systems, iPads or Xboxes.
And he has even less interest in wasting daylight hours engaging in the latest fad among the Irish and Munster squads – DVD box-sets – "I've no interest in that," he reveals.
He is distinctly old-school.
"I much prefer getting outdoors," said O'Mahony matter-of-factly. "I like watching tv at times, but I wouldn't be rushing home to watch anything in particular."
He's a throw-back to the days before rugby players were afforded "celebrity" status. O'Mahony would, you feel, physically recoil at any suggestion that status might be applied. He finds his solace in more solitary pursuits and, when possible, he likes to escape the bubble of professional sport.
"I find more enjoyment in taking the dog for a walk. It's so different from rugby. It's just me and the dog away from everything and everyone. It's relaxing."
The only change, indeed, in lifestyle since moving out of the family homestead in the Cork suburb of Rochestown is that family pet boxer, Charlie, has been supplanted by Peter's own dog Roxy, an 18-month low-set black Labrador.
Every chance he gets, O'Mahony is outside the confines of Cork city walking her through the fields and farmyards. It's how he relaxes.
"It's me and the dog. It helps clear my head," he explains.
O'Mahony's desire for anonymity and space is understandable. The pressure on rugby players these days is enormous.
And in O'Mahony's case it's not just pressure from the public. Since he's been old enough to hold a rugby ball – and there are rumours in the Cork Con clubhouse that he used to sleep with one in the crib – O'Mahony has shouldered the expectations of team-mates too.
When he was U-12 at Cork Con he captained the Fred Casey-coached side that competed in France. At some stage or another, all the greats from that famous Cork nursery have been coached by club stalwart Casey. Not all of them have been captain.
This trend continued through his school days when he captained the Presentation Brothers College Munster Junior and Senior Cup sides. He also captained the Ireland schools team and the Irish U-19 and U-20 sides.
At 23, O'Mahony is at a stage in his life when the heavy lifting should be done by those more senior around him. In an astonishingly short space of time, however, he has become one of Munster's leaders and most influential characters.
His team-mates are effusive in their praise of the back-row forward. He is universally respected, well liked and highly regarded.
"The older lads in the squad will tell you that they see the Paul O'Connell at 23 years of age in Peter," explained one Munster colleague.
"He is very much in Paul's mould. He doesn't waste words. When he talks it's not bullsh*t. He has a reason for everything he says and he invariably makes sense. You'd expect the younger lads to listen to him, because they grew up in teams where he was captain.
"When Peter speaks, the older lads listen too. He does have that standing within the group."
O'Mahony squirms a little at the O'Connell comparison. His natural modesty doesn't allow him to be spoken of in the same lofty tones as one of his heroes. He is clearly uncomfortable at the reference.
"That's a huge compliment. But there's only one Paul O'Connell. I've learned a lot from him and will continue to learn a lot from him," he says.
"I don't think I'll ever have his kind of knowledge or his natural ability to do certain things. He's a person everyone, regardless of position on the pitch, looks up to. The way he carries himself is how I'd like to carry myself.
"Absolutely, I enjoy leadership roles and that kind of stuff. But try and fill Paulie's boots? That's not enjoyable or possible.
"That will never be done again. Paul O'Connell is a stand-alone – as a person, a rugby player and a leader."
O'Mahony's modesty and attitude have served Munster well and in time will surely serve Ireland just as well. For him, rugby is the thing. It is his obsession, his raison d'etre. It is all-consuming and nothing comes between him and his craft.
Golf, for example: "I like it and try to get out once in a while. But even using the buggies, it's still a long day and tiring. We're professional rugby players. We have to be careful with how we fill our down-time."
It's obvious from how he prepares for and plays the game that the pre-eminence of hard work, the emphasis upon honesty and commitment, are tenets of O'Mahony's philosophy, the rules by which he lives his rugby life.
He's not immune to pressure – "with Ireland you have the pressure of a nation come 2.30 on match day. It's on a lesser degree with Munster, but at the same time you have to walk around Cork on Monday morning and face people" – but rather than succumbing, it's what fuels and sustains him.
"I'd be worried if I wasn't nervous before a game, regardless of what jersey I'm putting on."
On the pitch, O'Mahony is as abrasive as they come. His stomping ground is the back-row, the one place on a rugby pitch where flak jackets should be compulsory.
He is still learning the game, but his performances for Munster and Ireland have proven that he is imbued with the battling qualities and natural courage of those who have worn Munster's fire-engine red uniform with such distinction in the past.
He also, as only Munster back-rows can, plays on the edge. It is beyond question that the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude has been passed to the next generation, although O'Mahony has a unique view point of the 'scrapes' he gets into on the pitch.
"I'm more sinned against than sinner ... honestly!" he insists.
"Seriously, if it (aggression) kicks off it's normally in the pack and I'm in the pack, so I'm usually nearby. What am I going to do ... leave a team-mate there? Not stand up for myself or one of my team-mates, who is also a friend?
"It's a physical game. If you don't want to get down like that you might as well go away and play soccer. And honestly ... trouble seeks me out, they're picking on me!"
That edge to his game is what makes him such a favourite with his coaches. He is also a fantastic line-out operator – "the likes of Quinny ( Alan Quinlan) and Julien Bonnaire would be guys I admired" – and this is just one of the reasons why he is likely to feature heavily for Ireland during the Six Nations.
O'Mahony will be hoping to skip into the Ireland camp secure in the knowledge that there is a Heineken Cup quarter-final awaiting his return with Munster at the end of the Championship.
"We have a chance, and that's all you can ask for. This game is about what we can achieve for ourselves. There has been a lot of talk about game plans and people commenting that we should have been more comfortable against Edinburgh, which is frankly nonsense," he says.
"Winning away from home in the Heineken Cup is an achievement, no matter the opposition. We weren't up to standard, fine. But Edinburgh are a good side. They were in the semi-finals of the competition on merit last season and that should not be discounted.
"It's the same this week. No matter what anyone says to the contrary, Racing will travel looking to win this game. Munster is still a very big scalp. They have huge depth to their squad and no matter who is playing, they will fancy their chances.
"The pressure is on us to perform, we know that. People are getting carried away with this and that. We're producing at times ... the challenge is to put together an 80-minute performance," O'Mahony adds.
If Munster can navigate this obstacle, especially without the totemic presence of both O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara, it will be an achievement to rank up there with some of the province's halcyon days.
It will also be a huge step forward by the new generation of Munster player, led, no doubt, by O'Mahony.
The signs of a subtle shift in dynamic within Munster have been evident over the last season or so. Quarter-final qualification tomorrow would be an enormous step forward in that process and would help with the baton hand-over that must inevitably happen.