Sunday 18 February 2018

O’Mahony happy to get hands dirty at ‘coalface’ as Irish braced for breakdown battle

Heaslip defends back-row balance amid concerns Welsh poachers could shade crucial tussle for turnovers

David Kelly

David Kelly

"We look at it as 80 one-minute opportunities, not one 80-minute match," says Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip.

You don't need to be a mathematician to work out where Ireland's chances of avoiding a fourth successive defeat against Wales reside.

In last year's Dublin defeat, there were just five scrums. All were won by the feeding team. The line-out stats were influential enough; Wales were weakened in the second-row then, too, and Ireland forced them into 10 throws from which the away side garnered a miserable 40pc return.

Wales limited Ireland as much as possible, but the home side still won all their five throws.

However, the game was not at its most influential when it was at its most organised, rather when it was at its most disorganised. There were almost 200 breakdowns in play. From the game's disintegration arrives its greatest opportunities.

Forty years ago, there's a good chance there might only have been about 30 breakdowns per game; but don't let that fool you into whimsical nostalgia. There were also on average 38 scrums and 63 line-outs.

Today, the breakdown is king. That is why Heaslip refers to mini-matches within the 80 minutes. Every collision will impact the wider spectacle.

Hence, all talk in the Valleys is of Wales opting to select two breakdown exponents in Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton, although the former has been left on the bench. And hence the nervousness, particularly amongst Ireland's northern fraternity, in leaving out the current breakdown king on this island, Ulster's Chris Henry.

It is a fear that doesn't reside within the Ireland camp. Peter O'Mahony, a jack of several trades but surely destined to master the role of a snaffling seven, has earned the nod to poach but also to punch.

Mirroring the back three, this trio are designed with attacking, not defensive intentions in mind.

As a consequence, Sean O'Brien, returning to the rudest of destructive health, will be allowed to maraud from a preferred blindside slot – unlike, say, in Wellington, where he was chopped at source at will by the Welsh.

And behind it all will be the assured presence of the captain.

"Sean will bring his dynamic ball-carrying game and his relentless work-rate throughout and you combine that with Peter's ball-carrying and his work-rate and I think we have a back-row unit that's pretty mobile and can get through a lot of work," he says.

"The way that Ireland are looking to play, we'll be direct when we have to be but we also want to be expansive and be able to attack space no matter where it is. The back-row is a good unit and if Chris comes on, we've played in different combinations and everyone's fitting in pretty well.

"Everyone knows what they've got to cover and we're clear on what we have to do."

Martyn Williams, Wales' decorated No 7 supremo, reckons Kidney has missed a trick in leaving out Henry, suggesting that should Tipuric come off the bench to form a French-style left/right partnership, the home side can prosper.

O'Mahony, who has plied his shifts predominantly at six this term, is unfazed. "Seven is very different to six, which is a bit more similar to eight," he explains.

"It depends on where you're picked. It's a little bit of a different mindset, depending on which jersey you're wearing.

"Seven you're more at the coalface. Someone said that to me before and I like that phrase. At six and eight you're given a bit more time to float and carry more. Getting a run at things and settling down a small bit, I'm enjoying that as well."

You sense that if O'Mahony (23) can lock down his berth in this campaign, he could stay there for a long time, particularly if Stephen Ferris' injury woes persist.

With Alan Quinlan mooching about the team hotel on media duties and Anthony Foley now in situ on the coaching roster, O'Mahony doesn't miss any opportunity to sponge information from the last decade's pre-eminent back-row exponents.

"I suppose you want to take a piece from everybody," he muses. "I don't want to say, 'I'm X' or 'I'm Y'. You want to take bits and pieces from different players and add them to your skill-set.

"But you're never going to be as good as David Wallace was at doing certain things, or as good as Anthony Foley was, or as good as Sean O'Brien is. These guys have so much knowledge. It would be silly of me not to tap into that.

"You try and take bits and you try and improve your game at all times. But I don't feel like I've taken the jersey off anyone. People have been there before me and I won't be here forever, but I'm doing my best."

Tomorrow, out-smarting and out-punching the opposition will be the key focus, without which neither thrilling backline can even attempt to influence the game.

"You have world-class players there," O'Mahony asserts of the Welsh. "Their team is littered with them. These guys are a class outfit. It will be a huge challenge for us."

And, as the numbers show, it is a challenge that will arrive almost interrupted, and with increasingly physical and mental force, at least twice a minute.

Irish Independent

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