Monday 16 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Peter the Great'

O'Mahony now ranks alongside Galwey, Foley and O'Connell as outstanding leaders from Munster

Peter O’Mahony on the charge against New Zealand last Saturday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Peter O’Mahony on the charge against New Zealand last Saturday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Expert view: Alan Quinlan

Sixteen minutes of ferocity, intensity and an unwillingness to give in. Sixteen minutes that ultimately ensured this Ireland team would climb another rung on a daunting ladder. Sixteen minutes that summed up the relentlessness of Peter O'Mahony.

New Zealand, trailing 9-6, are enjoying their best spell of the game. The greatest team in the world smell blood, nails are being chewed in unison around Lansdowne Road.

Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett are probing, testing the lung capacities of Ireland's big men; Ardie Savea makes a couple of powerful carries, injecting another shot of momentum into the most dangerous attack on the planet.

Genuine leaders don't just recognise when a game is beginning to turn, they throw themselves into the middle of the action to stop the lever being pulled the other way - stand up, Peter O'Mahony.

Peter O’Mahony is helped off at the Aviva Stadium after suffering a dead leg. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Peter O’Mahony is helped off at the Aviva Stadium after suffering a dead leg. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Savea beats CJ Stander with some clever footwork, making a break before being hauled down by Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong. O'Mahony, always thinking two steps ahead, is lurking and pounces with the Kiwi openside isolated on the floor.

Ben Smith is first on the scene in black but the winger was never going to dislodge the ravenous blindside.

Johnny Sexton astutely raises both arms, appealing to Wayne Barnes, as Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock arrive in tandem, a combined 240kg shunt on the Ireland No 6, but they have already missed their clean-out window.

The clock reads 46:43 when Barnes raises his arm to confirm Ireland's turnover five metres outside their 22 and O'Mahony, after being congratulated by CJ Stander, hauls his skipper Rory Best up off the turf - he is only getting started.

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On 47:30, after an excellent touch-finder by Sexton from the breakdown penalty, O'Mahony feeds Best's lineout ball down to Kieran Marmion while under huge pressure from New Zealand skipper Kieran Read.

Switch

By 47:42, 59 seconds after O'Mahony's turnover, Jacob Stockdale is sliding over the New Zealand line for the only try of the game on the back of a superb switch play from the lineout. Sexton converts, Ireland's lead is out to 10, 16-6.

The ball goes loose from New Zealand's ensuing restart just after the 50-minute mark, and O'Mahony is there to gather it, dropping a hand on the floor before pumping his legs to make five or six valuable metres and set up an Ireland clearance via the boot of Marmion.

O'Mahony spends the next 60 seconds hobbling around the pitch as he tries to deal with a dead leg picked up during that last carry, eventually receiving treatment after Rob Kearney bundles Barrett into touch on the New Zealand five-metre line.

The grimace on O'Mahony's face suggests his night is done but after a brief consultation with Ireland's medical staff he is back to his bread and butter; lifting in the lineout, making tackles, hitting rucks.

The clock hits 60 minutes, New Zealand are threatening once more, Savea is again prominent, Jack Goodhue leaves Garry Ringrose for dead with a sublime step only to be hauled down by Keith Earls.

TJ Perenara has added energy to their attack and while Ireland are repelling the All Blacks, with 20 minutes still to play it is starting to look a bit ominous.

Barrett is getting in the groove and when he places a grubber in behind the Irish defence, the bounce and weight of the kick look perfect for the on-rushing Ben Smith who is storming in from his right wing, seemingly destined to score the 34th Test try of his career.

Not today though, as with the clock at 60:43, O'Mahony, willing his battered body across the field, makes a timely interception, and the danger is cleared once more.

New Zealand then put some more smart phases together, threatening to shatter Irish dreams in Dublin yet again - the game is at fever pitch.

This is when the All Blacks usually turn the screw; they are stretching the Irish defence, testing those wide channels that have been questioned in the build-up.

Ten metres from the Irish line, O'Mahony can feel the New Zealand grip tighten in this arm wrestle, so when Ofa Tu'ungafasi receives the ball from Perenara, all on his own, just 10 metres from the Ireland line, the Munster blindside seizes his opportunity.

It's a four-man play: Stander goes in low, Iain Henderson wraps up the ball to prevent an offload, setting up a chance for O'Mahony and Best to go in for the kill on the ground. Whitelock and Read arrive to try and rescue the situation but once again, they are too late.

The clock hits 62:48 when Barnes raises his arm to award another penalty in Ireland's favour, 16 minutes and five seconds since he did the same following O'Mahony's poach on Savea, just 12 metres directly behind where he is now standing.

This time O'Mahony doesn't have the energy to haul Best off the ground; he crumples into a heap, his body finally saying, 'No more'.

He is rightly given a standing ovation as he drags himself off the field after a bruising hour of work, the previous 16 minutes of match-winning plays certainly not going unnoticed.

O'Mahony's numbers may not be in the same league as Stander or James Ryan when it comes to carries and tackles, but he gets through so much unseen work; hitting rucks, keeping the opposition honest at the breakdown, putting fear into the opposing hooker when trying to pick apart another lineout.

When you see that maniacal stare of his, along with his relentless ferocity and the leadership qualities that radiate from his pores, it's impossible not to be reminded of Paul O'Connell. In fact, O'Mahony must now be considered alongside Munster's great leaders of the professional era - Paulie, Mick Galwey and 'Axel' Foley - compliments don't come much bigger.

O'Mahony, in the same vein as Paulie did, looks like he's chewing on a nest of wasps whenever he is on the field, but away from the heat of battle, again like O'Connell, he is well able to have a bit of craic.

Like 'Gaillimh', O'Mahony places great on value body language - even 30 minutes before Barrett got last weekend's game under way, I watched the Ireland No 6 with interest and you could see he was already tuned in; there was only one thing on his mind despite all the shuffling and pre-match razzmatazz going on around him.

The 29-year-old Corkonian is a throwback to the old-school Munster ways. He came on the senior scene when many of our Heineken Cup-winning squads of 2006 and 2008 were calling it a day, but he has kept the culture of those teams alive more than a decade on.

As a Munster man, and a fellow No 6, I was so proud to see him produce his best rugby against the top team in the world, particularly after he missed out on the Chicago success against the All Blacks and then later, in a cruel game of snakes and ladders, went from the dizzying honour of leading the Lions out for their first Test in Auckland last summer, only to then not feature for the subsequent victory in the second Test or the drawn finale.

Rumours

This time last year we didn't even know if O'Mahony would be renewing his contract at Munster, as rumours grew that he could be following Simon Zebo to France.

I think it's safe to say that his decision to remain in Ireland has now been justified, even if he had to endure another couple of crushing semi-final defeats with his beloved province last season.

He has always been a menace at the breakdown and in the lineout but he looks fitter than ever, he is covering more ground and he is picking his times to pounce brilliantly.

He frustrated me a bit a few years ago, I thought he could get involved in the play a bit more - and now he has become a world-class back-rower.

Like many of the game's great back-rowers over the years - Richie McCaw, David Pocock and George Smith - O'Mahony does his best work without the ball, but there is still room for improvement when he is in possession.

He is not the type who will be hanging out wide to try and grab a soft score - it's not in his nature - but with just one try in 52 Ireland Tests, I would like to see him improve that part of his game. That would make him the complete player in my eyes.

While blindside might not be the most glamorous position, I loved playing there and it's obvious that Peter does too.

You are encouraged to be aggressive as a No 6, to play that role of the enforcer but, as I found out on plenty of occasions, it is easy to lose the rag and cross the line when you are playing with such ferocity.

This is something that Peter manages incredibly well; his discipline rarely lets him down which is another nod to his on-field intelligence and perhaps an aspect of his game that is often under-appreciated.

Above all, though, Peter's greatest quality must be his resilience.

He had so many tough moments over the last few years, through injuries, disappointments with Munster, the see-saw nature of his Lions tour, and of course leading the province through the tragic death of Axel.

He has always been a special player with a rock-solid yet understated sense of self-belief.

You don't get given leadership roles from such a young age without it - you need that confidence in your own abilities to demand more from those around you.

Without that self-belief O'Mahony wouldn't back himself to steal that next lineout, to poach that next ball on the ground, or to make that vital interception.

And without the Corkman's infectious attitude, and ability to turn a game with sheer will, this Ireland team wouldn't keep beating all before them.

Irish Independent

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