Thursday 17 August 2017

'It's a huge honour' - Ireland's Peter O'Mahony to captain Lions as Gatland names team to face Maori All Blacks

Peter O’Mahony rises to win a lineout during yesterday’s match between the Crusaders and the Lions at AMI Stadium in Christchurch. Photo: Kai Schwoerer. Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
Peter O’Mahony rises to win a lineout during yesterday’s match between the Crusaders and the Lions at AMI Stadium in Christchurch. Photo: Kai Schwoerer. Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Nick Purewal

Ireland's Peter O'Mahony has said it is a "huge honour" to be named captain of the Lions team to face the Maori All Blacks this Saturday.

Five Irish - including Johnny Sexton - will start the match in Rotorua and while Sam Warburton is the bench, Gatland has confirmed that O'Mahony will keep the armband if he stays on the field when Warburton joins the fray, as a likely second-half replacement for Sean O'Brien.

Warburton faces a race against time to be fully match-sharp for the first Test on June 24 and Gatland is confident his tour captain would accept the decision if he does not make that starting XV.

"Sam's well aware of the competition that is there at the moment," said Gatland.

"He fully understands that that loose forward trio (O'Mahony, O'Brien and Taulupe Faletau) went outstandingly well against the Crusaders.

"The challenge for them is to repeat it. And if they do it again, we'll make what we think is the right selection for the Test match.

"One of the reasons we selected him as captain of the squad is that he is an absolute quality player.

"But this tour isn't about Sam Warburton, it's about putting the squad first.

"If he's not involved in the first Test because of the performance on Saturday night he will fully understand that.

"But he'll get some game time and some opportunity to keep improving his match fitness because he hasn't had a lot of rugby in recent weeks.

"This is important for him. He got a run-out against the Highlanders, I thought he was good for a long period of the game.

"Sean O'Brien hasn't had a lot of rugby either. So they'll both get game time and Sam gets another chance on Saturday night to come and perform.

"Peter will continue to lead the team (if Warburton comes on); I think that's only fair.

"You wouldn't change your match captain to your tour captain as he comes on the field. Sam's comfortable with that.

"I don't think that's the right thing, that's not the normal way that would happen."

Jonathan Davies has been passed fit after head injury trouble to start, forging a formidable midfield trio with Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton and England centre Ben Te'o.

Gatland insisted Warburton's ability to cope with setbacks and remain resolute was one of the key reasons why he was named Lions captain in the first place.

"Sam's character is hugely helpful; sometimes guys will be disappointed, one or two may feel they haven't had a chance," said Gatland.

"That's the hardest thing about going on tour. But it's how you deal with that.

"We want people disappointed if they are not selected, but it's then how you deal with that and how you respond.

"You've got to put that behind you, and be a positive influence and positive character around the squad. So far we've seen that."

Gatland hailed Saturday's Lions captain O'Mahony as a man who can bring the intangible will to win that has underscored Munster's modern-era success.

"I think sometimes it's not something that you can quantify, what Munster bring to a game," said Gatland.

"It's a special pride, sometimes the performances they can produce, (they've) done consistently over the years - being able to dig deep and bring performances from places where individuals and collectively people often can't do.

"That's what Peter will bring to the team on Saturday."

Ireland back-rower O'Mahony has had to fend off 18 months of chronic knee problems before hitting enough form to force his way onto the Lions tour.

The gritty flanker impressed against the Crusaders and is now a genuine Test-match option.

"It's a huge honour, obviously to be picked for the Lions at all is a massive honour," said O'Mahony.

"To get the nod from Warren this weekend is hugely special, not just me but for all the clubs, people and family who have put effort into me. It's a huge honour.

"We want to win but first and foremost we need a performance.

"Whatever comes after that is what comes.

"We need to be stepping up and guys to stick your hands up."

British and Irish Lions team to face the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua on Saturday:

L Halfpenny (Wales); A Watson (England), J Davies (Wales), B Te'o (England), G North (Wales); J Sexton, C Murray (both Ireland); M Vunipola, J George (both England), T Furlong (Ireland), M Itoje, G Kruis (both England), P O'Mahony (capt, Ireland), S O'Brien (Ireland), T Faletau (Wales).

Replacements: K Owens (Wales), J McGrath (Ireland), K Sinckler (England), I Henderson (Ireland), S Warburton (Wales), G Laidlaw (Scotland), O Farrell, E Daly (both England).

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