Friday 15 December 2017

Peter O'Mahony - a brave leader moulded and motivated by 18 months of heartbreak

Warren Gatland selected the Irishman as his skipper in Sam Warburton's stead, and admitted this week that the words of his late coach and friend Anthony Foley will be with him on Saturday

Peter O'Mahony struggling to hold on to his place in the Lions line-up for this weekend's 2nd Test against the All Blacks
Peter O'Mahony struggling to hold on to his place in the Lions line-up for this weekend's 2nd Test against the All Blacks

Jack Austin

Warren Gatland did something no coach had done in 87 years when he opted to omit Sam Warburton’s name from his XV to start the opening Test match against the All Blacks. But in the words of Peter O’Mahony’s late coach and friend Anthony Foley, he has done it “for a reason”.

“If you go out and play as well as you can, no one's going to fault you for that,” O’Mahony revealed Foley would tell him if he was around to see him lead out the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park on Saturday.

It will be these words that will be with him when he unleashes 18 months of emotion, pain and frustration on New Zealand.

Make no mistake, if Warburton is fit enough to sit on the bench, he is fit enough to start, but such is the leadership of O’Mahony that Gatland felt he was able to leave out his tour captain.

But to get to this highest of honours, the Munsterman had to endure the lowest of lows, and in the darkest of moments.

The 27-year-old was already 12 months into his recovery from a knee injury which ended his World Cup in 2015 the previous year when the news filtered through that his, and Munster’s, head coach Foley had suddenly passed away, aged 42.

He was not involved in the team at this time, given his rehabilitation, but the grief-stricken Munster captain fronted up before the world’s media and paid a heartfelt, emotional tribute to his teammate, friend and coach on behalf of the whole of Ireland and the rest of the rugby community.

“I'm not going to do him justice here. It's all the words I can say, to be honest,” the flanker said in October of last year.

“The amount that we have lost now that he has gone is incredible - the rugby knowledge and brain, the man and the friend and coach and brother that we have lost. It's mad.”

Devastated, O’Mahony continued his recovery, returning for Munster and making Ireland’s Six Nations squad, now only as a fringe player, making cameo appearances as a replacement against France and Wales.

But it was a twist of fate, and an ankle, which changed O’Mahony’s life and propelled him into the Lions reckoning, when Jamie Heaslip went down injured in the warm-up in the finale against England.

O’Mahony was promoted from the bench and produced arguably his finest performance in the emerald green to deny the bitter enemy back-to-back Grand Slams.

It was that performance which persuaded Gatland to take a punt on him in New Zealand and it is his leadership six months before which has convinced the Kiwi O’Mahony is the man who will keep his head in the cauldron of Eden Park.

O’Mahony’s injury meant he was not in the Ireland squad who famously defeat the All Blacks in Chicago a month after Foley’s untimely death and it will be the memory of his friend which has driven him on to the situation he finds himself in now.

“He would have told us all ‘play your game, play what you do and what you know’,” said O'Mahony of Foley’s mantra.

And O’Mahony knows what he and the 22 men following him into battle against the All Blacks in Auckland on Saturday will need to do. Win, at all costs.

(© Independent News Service)

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