Wednesday 21 March 2018

From crib to captain

With Munster blood in his veins, Peter O'Mahony is determined to carve his own name amongst the province's greats

Back-row Peter O'Mahony was appointed Munster's youngest captain last month just as he was turning 22
Back-row Peter O'Mahony was appointed Munster's youngest captain last month just as he was turning 22

Hugh Farrelly

FOR Peter O'Mahony, it started in the crib.

"From day one, it was always rugby with Peter," recalls aunt and godmother Fidelma O'Mahony. "There was always a rugby ball in the cot with him and he was wearing jerseys as a baby and all the way up, either Cork Con or Munster. He was going to games since he was a toddler and playing for those teams was all he ever wanted -- it's brilliant to see how far he has come."

That journey has been made over a relatively short period of time and included a stand-out showing in Munster's win over Australia a year ago and being appointed the province's youngest captain last month -- just as he was turning 22.

It has been a story of continual progress to this point from underage rugby with Cork Con (where his father, John, played and is now PRO) to a Schools Cup title in PBC Cork, to senior AIL glory back at Temple Hill, to Munster -- with representative honours all the way up.

As the captaincy demonstrated, O'Mahony now has front-line status in Munster, working alongside players he once used to pester for socks and autographs.

"I have all the autographs from when I was a kid," admits O'Mahony. "Ronan O'Gara, Mick O'Driscoll, I used to pester them all. I remember I used to be always at Donncha O'Callaghan and his brother Ultan to give me their socks and now Ultan's looking for me to give a few pairs of my socks to his young fella.


"I grew up going to Munster games with my Dad. I remember being in Thomond Park for the Saracens game when ROG (O'Gara) kicked the winning conversion with a bandage on his head and I was there for the 'Miracle Match' against Gloucester a few years after.

"So, it was bit daunting to come into that environment at the start, but the Munster dressing-room is not a place where you show any bit of weakness.

"It's a great place to be, there's a great buzz. We have quite a young squad -- the core of the squad is probably under 23, that is probably the most dominant group. A lot of us came us together, through the Academy and the 'A' side and there are nine or 10 of us who are really close.

"But I'd be close to some of the older fellas as well as the guys my own age. Micko is a guy I have got to know well, and the likes of Donncha and Paul (O'Connell) as well."

Given the limited number of starting places, getting promising youngsters regular game time is a perennial issue for the four Irish provinces, particularly for heavyweights Munster and Leinster, given the depth of competition.

Nowhere is that more relevant than in the back-row, but O'Mahony says he never thought about a move elsewhere in search of a regular starting spot.

"Munster was always my dream and to get offered a contract last year was that dream come true. I've never considered playing somewhere else.

"When you are involved in a team like Munster, you need to have an understanding of where you are. This is a double Heineken Cup-winning team, with a lot of those players, established internationals, still around. You can't expect just to walk into that side, you wait for your opportunity and when it comes, it is up to you to take it.

"There will always be issues with game time and whether you are getting enough of it, but when you are playing with Munster, you have to earn your stripes."

With his rise to prominence, the comparisons are coming thick and fast. Cork Con coach Brian Walsh last week said O'Mahony had a Richie McCaw-like quality, and there are obvious similarities with retired Munster flanker Alan Quinlan -- not least an ultra-abrasive quality and feral intensity.

However, O'Mahony stresses the need to be his own man.

"Alan was always a great player for Munster and a great study for every aspiring back-row. He was a brilliant line-out option and people always go on about how he played on the edge, but every back-row needs to play on the edge.

"You look at someone like McCaw, it's about being alert and being smart about how you play. But I don't want to get name-tagged as a Quinlan or a (David) Wallace or whoever, I want to play my own game."

At the moment, O'Mahony is playing his own game in the No 7 jersey -- good news for Irish rugby given the constant search for quality options at open-side flanker.

"I like it there," he says. "It's enjoyable, a much different challenge to six or eight. People say there can be a 'one-fits-all' approach to the back-row, but I don't think that is the case -- open-side is a very specialist position, it's something I enjoy."

If open-side comes naturally, then so does leadership and O'Mahony took the Munster captaincy in his stride in O'Connell's absence -- his sense of responsibility heightened by an appreciation of the men who had gone before.

"I grew up watching the likes of Mick Galwey, Anthony Foley, Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara lead out Munster. They were big boots to fill, so to be asked to do the same was a massive honour.

"I've captained a lot of sides I've played with, but Munster is a different thing entirely. Just because I had led teams before didn't mean it would be easy, it's a massive responsibility. But when (coach) Tony McGahan rang me on the Thursday and asked me to do it, happy days, I had a big smile on my face for the next few days.

"People captain in different ways. For me, it's the way you carry yourself, I look at Paul O'Connell and the way he carries himself on and off the pitch, he's the blueprint for captaincy, you just want to row in behind him.

"I'm comfortable with the different aspects of leadership. Some people like to talk, others don't, I like to say a few words but not too much, that has to be done out on the pitch."

When you encounter young players on the way up, you look for clues to glean if the player has what it takes and the signs from O'Mahony are positive.

He is not getting ahead of himself ("it's about the next match and putting in a performance, ambition takes a back seat") and, if anything, is overly cautious in his words so as not too appear cocky -- creating further echoes of Quinlan, who recoiled from any Ireland talk when he broke through 14 years ago.

His admiration for O'Connell is instructive also, for when you talk to those who have worked and played alongside O'Mahony, they speak about an O'Connell-like intensity and single-minded drive to set individual and collective standards.

It is early days but O'Mahony looks to have the right stuff and, should he gain the selection his performances have merited against Leinster in Lansdowne Road on Friday, the wider rugby public will get the opportunity to form their own opinion.

"I can't afford to be looking too far ahead," says O'Mahony. "Whatever happens in the long run, so be it. It's up to me, what I do on the pitch."

That promises to be worth watching.

Irish Independent

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