When Peter O’Mahony leads the British and Irish Lions out against the Maori All Blacks tomorrow morning for one of the proudest days of his career, he will pay a debt of gratitude to the leaders who have made him the captain he is.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland knew exactly what he was getting when he named the Munster skipper, 27, in his squad of 41 for this toughest of tours, which reaches the halfway point at Rotorua International Stadium tomorrow.
And those same qualities are why he called the blindside flanker aside at breakfast on Thursday and told him he would be skipper for the tourists in this unofficial “fourth test” against the storied Maori All Blacks.
“It’s not something that you can quantify what Munster brings to a game,” Gatland said yesterday.
“It’s a special pride, sometimes the performances they can produce, it’s done consistently over the years. Being able to dig deep and bring performances from places where individuals and collectively people often can’t do. That’s what Peter will bring to the team on Saturday.”
O’Mahony, in turn, knows exactly where he acquired that unquantifiable nature described by Gatland. “Guys around me have been successful and the number of people I’ve learned off — not just the captains who I’ve been involved with, but the other players I’ve been around as well,” said O’Mahony.
“The amount of learning I’ve taken from them is huge, you’d hope you’ve picked up a couple of things that they’ve helped you with and brought them through as well.
“Obviously, (Paul) O’Connell was hugely influential on my career; I’ve played with him probably since I started with Munster. He was involved in nearly all of my games with Munster and Ireland and he’d be a huge influence.
“Drico (Brian O’Driscoll) was still there when I was playing with Ireland as well and I could name lots more. Growing up, the Munster back-rowers even when I was playing — Wally (David Wallace) and Axel (Foley) — had a huge influence on my career as well. It’s a way maybe of paying them back for the hard work they put into me.”
O’Connell is still an excellent sounding board for O’Mahony and the former Munster, Ireland, and Lions legend was there for the Corkman when he thought his Lions dream was over as he missed the opening rounds of the Six Nations with a hamstring injury last February, having only returned from a year out with a knee injury.
“We bumped into each other in a corridor in our (Munster) training centre. I hadn’t played in the first two games of the Six Nations and he said ‘keep the head down, keep tipping away’ and ‘there are big games coming up for you’. We were still in Europe and he said (Gatland) would watch them. His advice was to just worry about the next weekend and perform for whatever team I was picked.”
One of those big games that lay ahead of O’Mahony was the Six Nations finale against Grand Slam-chasing England. He had been named on the bench before a late withdrawal by Jamie Heaslip opened the door to a starting place and a starring role.
He had come off the bench and impressed the previous week in a defeat to Wales but the England game in Dublin was another massive stride in the right direction as O’Mahony put in an epic man-of-the-match performance and proved with his lineout ability just how useful he could be against the All Blacks.
It was suggested to him that such a ripping yarn was the stuff of fairytales, to which he replied: “I didn’t think I was going to get picked for the Lions... I didn’t think I had played enough rugby before then,” said O’Mahony.
“I don’t know if that was a fairytale. I have put a lot of hard work into my career and you have got to take your opportunities when they come. Sometimes they are unfortunate for other guys but it doesn’t matter, you have to be selfish. I use that word... it is not a selfish game but sometimes you have to play well when you need to play well and that day I played all right.
“It wasn’t just that day I would like to say I have played some good games for Munster as well this season. I went through a lot — even the days when we lost, you have got to take your lessons. It wasn’t just that day there was a lot of hard work going into that not just over the last 12 months but the last few years. I have worked hard and all the 41 guys who have been picked have worked hard so I can’t just say it was one day.”
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