British & Irish Lions captain Peter O'Mahony will take the advice he imagines his late mentor Anthony Foley would have given him and not try "to be something you're not" when he faces the All Blacks in Saturday's first Test, writes Simon Lewis in Auckland.
Munster skipper O'Mahony was named captain of the Lions after nailing down a famous red jersey for the series opener against world champions New Zealand at Eden Park on Saturday morning.
Head coach Warren Gatland named the 27-year-old at number six in a team featuring three fellow Irishmen in back-row colleague Sean O'Brien, tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong and Munster team-mate and scrum-half Conor Murray.
At the business end of a tumultuous season which Munster head coach Foley pass away at the age of 42 last October, O'Mahony, who cites “Axel” as the most influential coach of his career in his official Lions profile, was asked advice he would have given him before such an important game.
“Axel's a rugby man, so he would have told us all 'play your game, play what you do and what you know',” O'Mahony said.
“He'd have said there's a reason there's 45 players here now who have been selected. So just go out and play the game you know and what you're here for. There's no point in trying to be something you're not over here.
“You've been picked for a reason, so if you go out and play as well as you can, no one's going to fault you for that.”
O'Mahony could scarcely have imagined he would be a Lions captain having been named on the bench for Ireland's Six Nations finale against England just 13 weeks ago after missing the start of the championship with a hamstring injury.
He had only returned from a year on the sidelines with a serious knee injury suffered at the World Cup in October 2015 and thought of even making the tour squad had seemed a long shot.
Yet a man of the match performance against the English, having been thrown into the starting line-up minutes before kick-off following Jamie Heaslip's late withdrawal with a back injury has turned O'Mahony's fortunes on their head and he will line up in a back row featuring O'Brien and No.8 Taulupe Faletau that has already seen off the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks.
“It’s incredible to be picked for the Lions and then to be asked to captain them is a huge honour. Now it’s down to business now and down to performance from the 23 guys that are picked. Now it’s on to the job.
“Toby (Faletau) has been probably the outstanding player so far, he has played incredibly well, Seanie is carrying really well and getting back into it. It’s nice to play alongside two players of such calibre.
“It’s a huge task obviously the calibre of player New Zealand have, their record at Eden Park is impressive. But it’s going to be a different animal at the weekend, there are going to be 20,000 odd Lions fans there.
“To be involved in a game of this magnitude is where all these players who have been picked want to be, challenging against the best in the world.
“There would be something seriously wrong if there wasn’t excitement the week that’s in it. There is a huge amount of energy in there.”
Gatland backed his call to make O'Mahony Test captain, with tour skipper Sam Warburton named on the bench and said the Munster man would have plenty of leaders in the team to support him.
“Peter has done a good job and he is chuffed about it,” Gatland said. “He’s lucky that he’s got a lot of experience around him. We have been very pleased with the micro chat within the squad with players contributing to the talk, whether it’s been Sean O’Brien, Sam has been excellent, Alun Wyn Jones and George Kruis, Owen Farrell as well, so there’s a lot of leadership within the group.
“There’s not people talking for the sake of it, there’s not white noise, it’s clarity and it’s succinct. Peter has got to concentrate on doing his job which he does well and he will get plenty of support from other players too.”