By Simon Lewis, Rotorua
Warren Gatland has backed Peter O'Mahony to bring an unquantifiable Munster spirit and character when the Ireland back rower leads the British & Irish Lions out against the Maori in Rotorua on Saturday.
The head coach handed blindside flanker O'Mahony the captaincy overnight in New Zealand as he named a strong and powerful team for this unofficial “fourth Test” in the Maori heartlands of the North Island, declaring that starting fly-half Johnny Sexton had regained his “mojo” after a slow start to the tour.
It gives the Munster skipper a further chance to stake a claim to a Test place seven days later as he reunites with compatriot Sean O'Brien and Wales No.8 Taulupe Faletau in a back row that helped defeat Super Rugby leaders the Crusaders in Christchurch last Saturday.
There are 11 players who started that 12-3 win in the XV named to face the Maori, with fly-half Owen Farrell making way for Sexton in the number 10 jersey.
Gatland is looking for a repeat in terms of intensity and defensive sharpness that O'Mahony helped bring to bear at AMI Stadium.
The Lions boss had called it “Munster mongrel” before that game and on Thursday he said: “It's not something that you can quantify what Munster brings to a game.
“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, 27, who captained Ireland on their 2013 tour to North America, is the fourth player to lead the Lions on this 2017 tour, following Welsh forwards trio Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and tour captain Sam Warburton, who was named on the bench for the Maori game having started Tuesday's loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin.
“It's a huge honour, obviously to be picked for the Lions at all is a massive honour,” O'Mahony said. “To get the nod from Warren this weekend is hugely special, not just me but for all the clubs, people and family who have put effort into me. It's a huge honour.
“We're looking to build on Saturday, build on our learnings from Tuesday. That's what this tour is all about.
“It is a tight turnaround, but as a group of players you've got to prepare for that before you arrive, you know they are coming thick and fast. Guys are well prepared, the recovery structure we have is excellent, so no excuses, we're getting stuck in in training.
O'Mahony had learned he was being given the captaincy at breakfast, a couple of hours before the team was announced and said it had been a short conversation with Gatland.
“Obviously I was delighted,” he said.
“We want to win but first and foremost we need a performance. Whatever comes after that is what comes. We need to be stepping up and guys to stick their hands up.
“You've got to do it justice, not just for yourself but for everything the Lions stands for, for the guys that don't get the chance at the weekend. You're playing for the 41 and everything that goes behind.
“There's a huge amount of honour that goes into the jersey, and you have to show it every time you put it on.”
Gatland also explained his decision to start Sexton at fly-half. He has re-formed the Ireland half-back pairing with Conor Murray, switching Sexton with expected Test No.10 Owen Farrell, who drops to the bench for the second game in a row having started against the Crusaders and scored all 12 points, although he played more than 50 minutes at inside centre in a midfield axis with replacement Sexton at fly-half.
“Johnny needs more rugby and we're building on that,” Gatland said.
“He was really good off the bench the other day and the combination of 10 and 12 was pretty seamless. He was just down a little on confidence but he's got a bit of his mojo back, and we wanted to give him a start against the Maori.”