Saturday 22 July 2017

'He was awkward and edgy... I'm glad we didn't knock that out of him' - The man behind Peter O'Mahony

O'Mahony ready to lead Lions into All Blacks test

O’Mahony appearing for the Lions. Picture: Sportsfile
O’Mahony appearing for the Lions. Picture: Sportsfile
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

'He was awkward, edgy… I'm glad we didn't knock it out of him," quips the principal at Peter O'Mahony's old school.

Advised by Axel Foley to "be yourself" and doubtless guided by his old school motto "Viriliter Age" - or "act manly" - the bullish backrow forward will lead the British and Irish Lions into their first Test against New Zealand tomorrow with a lot of steel won the old-fashioned way - through hardship and determination.

PBC Deputy Principal Aiden Twomey and Principal David Barry
PBC Deputy Principal Aiden Twomey and Principal David Barry

His astonishing comeback is the stuff of dreams.

And if the Lions captain feels the presence of some extra support on the field with him in Eden Park, it could well be his loyal supporters in his native Mount Oval in Co Cork.

They include former internationals Frankie Sheahan, Ralph Keyes and Mick O'Driscoll and former Munster manager Jerry Holland who have watched him grow up and will will him on against the All Blacks.

Talking to his former principal Aiden Twomey at Presentation College Cork, you get the impression that the best of O'Mahony's school days did not take place against the backdrop of a classroom.

O’Mahony with Munster legend Anthony Foley. Picture: Provision
O’Mahony with Munster legend Anthony Foley. Picture: Provision

Was O'Mahony an easy student? "No," Aiden easily recalls. Popular with teachers? He gives a wry laugh. "He got through the place," he concedes.

Instead, O'Mahony had something different. He was a leader. He refused to lie down or be beaten.

The term underdog meant nothing to him. Aiden believes he is still the same now as he was in those early days and puts him in the same basket as Christy Ring and Roy Keane: "When things get hard, you try harder, become more dogged."

"He doesn't think about what it is to be an underdog or about uphill battles. Will he be fazed or afraid? No, he was never afraid of me," laughed Aiden.

Lions captain Peter O’Mahony pictured with ever-present rugby ball as a child
Lions captain Peter O’Mahony pictured with ever-present rugby ball as a child

Not the biggest, the strongest or the fastest, that mattered little. "When he puts on the jersey, he's somebody else altogether."

Former rugby great and Pendulum Summit Chief Executive Frankie Sheahan, a neighbour of O'Mahony's at Mount Oval in Cork, recalls how the youngster would call over regularly at the height of his own playing career and they'd have a kick around.

As he got older, it was clear rugby was becoming more serious - and Frankie would share training and diet programmes with him.

He is touched by a text message he got that morning from Peter's mother Caroline who told him he was "Peter's hero growing up" and she remembers how, once, he'd given him a huge bag of gear and O'Mahony used to sleep in it.

Sheahan will be watching the match with bated breath.

Frankie Sheahan's Facebook post
Frankie Sheahan's Facebook post

"I'm proud to be associated with him," he says.

At his club Cork Constitution supporters will be watching intently tomorrow morning, says spokesperson Jack O'Sullivan.

He recalls how O'Mahony stood out as a player as young as eight.

"A lot of the little lads haven't a clue at that stage - but Peter knew what he wanted," he says.

Like his father Jack, O'Mahony is a loyal club man. When he played his last game for Cork Con against Belvedere in Donnybrook before he got a place on the Munster panel, O'Mahony was in tears because he knew it would be his last time lining out.

Over and over, those who know him best describe him as "quiet, understated and not into the limelight".

Under the radar, he supports Dogs for Disabled - a charity which provides specially trained assistant dogs to those with disabilities, mainly children.

Founder Jennifer Dowler describes him as "fantastic with children".

"He'd bypass the adults and go straight to the kids and they idolise him," she says.

One of the children whose life has been transformed by an assistant dog is Patrick Kelly (15) who was left with physical disabilities following an accident at the age of three. The dog helped him to learn to walk again, unaided, explained his father James.

"He's a doer and not a talker and so is O'Mahony," James says.

Last April, following O'Mahony's incredible comeback against England, the rugby player turned up for a photocall for the charity and, turning to Patrick, saying: "I've got something for you," handed him his cherished Man of the Match medal.

"Patrick nearly collapsed," says James. The youngster keeps the medal beside his bed.

Irish Independent

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