Saturday 20 January 2018

O'Mahony happy to switch position if Heaslip misses out

Peter O'Mahony insists he would be unfazed at being asked to switch to the base of the scrum or openside if required. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Peter O'Mahony insists he would be unfazed at being asked to switch to the base of the scrum or openside if required. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

Joe Schmidt's dilemma this week as he begins Ireland's defence of their European crown is whether courting short-term gain may threaten long-term pain.

It is crystallised in the back-row conundrum he faces days out from the trip to Rome; he knows his best trio.

Trouble is, only one of them, Peter O'Mahony, has comprehensively proved his fitness for 80 minutes of expected torrid trench warfare. Jamie Heaslip is almost certainly gone; Sean O'Brien may only bench after his yawning absence from intensive combat.

Schmidt is notoriously reliant on players demonstrating supreme fitness well ahead of selection for tests such as these; even Luke Fitzgerald's late withdrawal from the Wolfhounds game last week may hamper his plans this week to burst into the starting XV.

O'Brien has trained but admitted he struggled last Friday before "blowing up"; Heaslip's preparation continues to be hampered by shoulder issues that have prematurely ended all his outings since first suffering damage a month ago.

It seems he was absent from training yesterday so, presumably, his goose is cooked.

Indulged

Cian Healy, too, hasn't fully indulged in training until yesterday, despite passing a strength test on his hamstring at the start of the week; it is a fractured and fraught preparation, brimming with risks.

And this is a coach whose inordinately successful record militates against unnecessary risk-taking.

Simon Easterby, his assistant in the forwards division, presumably shares the outlook of the entire staff as he counsels caution.

"He (Jamie), like the others who have question marks over them, has to get through today," said Easterby before yesterday's private training session.

"He is a pretty impressive healer. He doesn't get injured much but we have to make sure that we go to Rome with players capable of getting through 80 minutes.

"We don't want to go there with players who are potential risks in a Test match."

O'Mahony is one leading option to cover for Heaslip; so too Jordi Murphy, last year's Six Nations breakthrough star, albeit he may already be needed to stand in at No 7 if O'Brien is held in reserve.

O'Mahony would be unfazed at being asked to switch to the base of the scrum or openside - he jokes that he wouldn't mind playing on the wing once he selected, albeit few would want a recurrence of that particular role which actually did occur on Ireland's last calamitous visit to Rome.

Indeed, he has filled all three back-row slots on successive weeks recently, albeit his stints at 7 and 8 were against Zebre and Sale Sharks (reserves); hardly conducive environments relative to a fraught Six Nations away day.

"I enjoy playing at 7," he says. "You're kind of at the coal face a bit more than you are at 6 so at times, it gets you into games a bit better. You're at almost every first breakdown. It gets you straight into it."

As with all Schmidt sides, O'Mahony might be expected to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all back-row positions even though he is now a nailed on starter.

"Not as much as I used to when I was coming off the bench but certainly I'd always have an eye to the eight slot or just keeping an eye on things, more than anything," he says, conscious of the health issues swirling around Heaslip and O'Brien, both of whom would presumably start if fully fit.

"But you're not going to be tapped on the shoulder and told, 'Look, you're covering this, this and this' but you just need to be able to adapt and be able to have a general knowledge of the two. I think it's the same for everyone," he explains.

However the returning O'Brien is deployed, whether it be on the bench or as a starter, his international rehabilitation is a huge boon.

"Yeah, it's great, even just having him back around camp," asserts O'Mahony. "He's a good fella, he's a good friend of mine and he has a huge amount of experience and is a class athlete.

"So it's good to have him back, even for the craic and the camaraderie, he's someone to bump ideas off. You can only benefit from having a Lion coming back."

However, like Ireland's morning session yesterday that was lost to the weather, Heaslip is in danger of being frozen out entirely.

Irish Independent

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