Sunday 22 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: Fearless O'Mahony epitomises the strength of ground-breaking group

Irish skipper Peter O’Mahony and Rob Kearney during Ireland’s captain’s run at Allianz Stadium in Sydney yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Irish skipper Peter O’Mahony and Rob Kearney during Ireland’s captain’s run at Allianz Stadium in Sydney yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

It was the spring of 2011 and while the finish line for my playing career was in sight, I found myself in the all-too-familiar position of working my way back from injury - a dislocated elbow the affliction on this particular occasion.

Still unable to take part in contact, I was down in Cork doing a gruelling fitness session to open up the lungs.

Shuttle runs were the torture of choice, but fortunately I had another member of the back-row union for company that day.

He may have been 15 years my junior but even then, in what was merely a rehabilitation session for both of us, Peter O'Mahony had a rare presence about him.

There I was, at 36 years of age, working towards one last hurrah on the field, running alongside this prodigy from Cork who was merely starting out on his professional career. There was a really warming contrast to the situation; the veteran and the young buck connecting through a common goal. Two blindsides working towards a bigger picture.

There was little time for sentimentality, however, as we ran around cone after cone, over and back, over and back, matching each other stride for stride, pushing each other as team-mates and pushing each other to help ourselves.

O'Mahony has been a natural warrior for as long as I have known him. He has always commanded respect by the way he goes about his business. He has an enviable well of self-belief and while I'm sure he has moments of doubt, I am yet to see him fazed by a challenge.

After recovering from the cruciate injury he suffered against France in the Rugby World Cup three years ago, it took him quite a while to really hit his stride again which is certainly not uncommon after such a lengthy absence.

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He had to bide his time with Ireland but when he got an opportunity against England 15 months ago, owing to Jamie Heaslip's unfortunate injury in the warm-up, O'Mahony seized it with both hands.

Prior to that career-defining performance at the Aviva, O'Mahony's 2017 Six Nations playing time had amounted to a meagre 30 minutes across two substitute appearances.

Yet just over three months after his stunning performance in the 13-9 win against England, he was leading out the Lions for the first Test against New Zealand at Eden Park. Those short-term turnarounds don't happen to ordinary guys.

There is an infectious fearlessness in Peter O'Mahony which inspires those around him to greater levels than words from the most talented orators ever could.

It was that same fearlessness, that same determination to keep pushing me on that extra shuttle run in 2011, that saw him come out as the top back-rower on the field last weekend despite being up against two of the best in the business.

David Pocock and Michael Hooper kept probing, kept biting at Irish ball on the floor, and still caused us plenty of problems last weekend. But O'Mahony was the King of the Breakdown, and that sent such a powerful message to the rest of the men in green.

After Pocock put in a man-of-the-match performance in the first Test, O'Mahony would have been desperate to outshine his Aussie counterpart in the second Battle of the Sixes, and he did just that by turning into Mr Turnover; edging a fascinating contest on points.

The pair may have different numbers on their backs today but their back-row duel will again be one of the most interesting sub-plots, and ultimately the outcome of their latest personal joust - as O'Mahony earns his 50th Irish cap - will likely have a big say in which side secures a series victory in Sydney.

The attitudes of O'Mahony and Jonathan Sexton, his co-captain on this tour, epitomise everything that is great about this current crop of Irish players, which, remember, includes many of the same faces that won the Six Nations in 2014 and 2015; beat New Zealand for the first time; claimed a maiden victory on South African soil, secured a third Irish Grand Slam; and last week ended a 39-year wait for a Test success Down Under.

It has been a pleasure to watch this team grow under Joe Schmidt's watch for the past five seasons, and to see such mental fortitude among the playing group is something we should be proud of - and inspired by - because that attitude has been the key to this group of players raising the bar for Irish international rugby.

Whatever happens today, it's been a momentous season, and one that has exceeded most expectations - maybe except those of this special group of players. And that's exactly why they are on the cusp of yet another huge achievement.

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