RONAN O'GARA: Timing a friend to Peter O’Mahony and a foe for CJ Stander

Amid all the hoopla about Peter O’Mahony’s captaincy of the Lions is the salient point that in sport, as in life, timing is everything. 

To say that O’Mahony is the beneficiary of good timing would be an understatement.

That timing was not all of his own making. How he has progressed since Jamie Heaslip rolled his ankle at the Aviva Stadium, in March, is worthy of scrutiny.

He produced some excellent lineout work against England and triggered a media frenzy regarding his inclusion on the tour to New Zealand.

Peter was as good as anyone in Munster’s demolition of Toulouse, in the Champions Cup quarter-final, at Thomond Park, and as ineffective as his Munster colleagues in the subsequent Champions Cup semi loss to Saracens, and in the loss to Scarlets in the Pro12 final. But he has found his form, and his mojo, at exactly the right time on this tour.

Compare his circumstance to that of his Munster colleague, CJ Stander, who doesn’t make the 23 for the first test in Auckland tomorrow.

Six weeks ago, Stander was the best back-row in Europe, and possibly beyond.

His momentum has slowed down, for sure. Is that because he was so far ahead of everyone else for seven or eight months this season? That ankle problem seemed to stall him. Or is he the victim of unlucky timing?

It’s an unbelievable honour for O’Mahony, for his family, for Cork Con, for Munster, and for Ireland. It would have been a more clear-cut decision if Alun Wyn-Jones wasn’t also a starter. But he is.

He was the skipper four years ago, for the third test in Sydney, as the Lions demolished Australia. He’s in the side and not the captain.

Frankly, I would have selected Maro Itoje, with Wyn-Jones and George Kruis battling for the jersey. Along with his Saracens colleague, Owen Farrell, he’s been the best player in Europe this year.

Has Itoje’s exclusion less to do with his impact off the bench and more to do with the scrum? I’m not sure. I don’t have the requisite expertise in that area.

The more you get into management, the more you realise that certain players are picked for certain nuanced situations.

It’s something I learned in America with the Irish squad — a right scrummaging lock, a left scrummaging lock, etc. But Itoje has an engine for 100 minutes, never mind 80.

He also has the capacity to score a try from 40 yards, and that’s not something Wyn Jones, nor Kruis, will do.

Like the good captain he is, O’Mahony won’t change his approach tomorrow because it’s against the All Blacks. He speaks very well, and he leads by his actions, but he will also let the other leaders run the show — Wyn-Jones, Farrell, Faletau, and Murray.

The senior players are as important as the captain. Andy Farrell will get them to the right pitch beforehand, and the players will react to O’Mahony.

I won’t tempt fate to suggest we are guaranteed a Lions performance, but they’ve been gelling and knocking off the rough edges with every outing (which wouldn’t have been hard). I honestly doubt that’s enough to beat the All Blacks at Eden Park.

Tries will be crucial and the Lions have picked an exciting back-three — Halfpenny was the safe bet, but with Farrell on the pitch, there’s not the same need.

Liam Williams looks interesting with space to play in and New Zealand will kick a lot. It’s not a back-three that indicates a conservative approach to the first test.

Conor Murray box-kicked 17 times against the Crusaders. If you are kicking like that, it’s 17 opportunities of scraps, contestables — or breaking ball, if you’re a GAA man. But the kick is only as good as the fella chasing it.

It’s a big ask for Elliot Daly or Anthony Watson, because neither is a recognised kick-chaser.

The best people for that are Irish wingers. Keith Earls, for instance. (At the start of this season, Darren Sweetnam was doing that better than either of the test wingers will do tomorrow in Auckland).

My point is horses for courses. Murray will, at least, be in double figures tomorrow, when it comes to kicking the ball, and 80% of those will be contestables.

With all the discussion about the midfield combinations, the Lions selection suggests to me that Farrell was the choice, from a long way out, at 10, as was Liam Williams for 15.

Leigh Halfpenny has played his best two tour games ever. If he can’t get the start after that, was he ever going to?

But the key figure is another Williams, Sonny Bill, and the presence, and the ball skills, which that All Blacks centre brings to the table.

Whatever the conditions, it’s an extremely potent All Blacks midfield of Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty, and SBW.

But let’s just argue, for the hell of it, that Williams goes off injured. How does that change everyone’s mindset on the pitch? Now, we are looking at a New Zealand midfield of Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown, and Ryan Crotty. The Lions are thinking ‘we’re not too scared of that’.

The tourists may need something like that to break for them tomorrow. Because, psychologically, the All Blacks are the toughest nut in sport to crack.

Certainly, in the northern hemisphere, people underestimate the importance the All Blacks place on the mental side of the game.

One of the key operatives in the backroom team is Gilbert Enoka, who’s been with them for 15 years. He’s the mental-skills coach who brought the ‘no dickheads’ philosophy into the set-up.

He won’t need to use the All Blacks’ Eden Park record as a comfort blanket, but it’s there — 37-0 in tests since 1994, which borders on ridiculous.

Looking at the results, only five of those wins have been by less than ten points.

Do inclement conditions help the Lions? It will help them in their scrutiny of Beauden Barrett.

As much as I am looking forward to Barrett and Farrell going at it in attack, I am fascinated at the prospect of how the New Zealand ten copes with the Lions going after him. He’s a sublime talent, but he gets an armchair ride in Super Rugby.

Tomorrow, if it’s lashing rain, with a greasy ball, it’s an unpleasant thought knowing O’Brien, O’Mahony, Faletau, and Vunipola are lining up to cut him in two.

It’s odd Steve Hansen has left Julian Savea out of the 23 altogether, and gone with Dagg and Ioane. At least it ensures Dougie Howlett’s record number of 49 All Blacks tries remains intact, for the time being (Savea has 47, from 53 tests).

But the All Blacks coach knows that when the pressure comes on tomorrow, there is so much trust between his players that they almost instinctively do the right thing in the last 20 minutes.

It could be tight for 60 minutes, but it’s a very different scenario getting over the finishing line, and winning a test match, in Eden Park.

Going close is no good. The All Blacks’ mental fortitude is better than anyone else’s in world rugby.

Citing Ireland’s victory over them in Chicago is a complete irrelevance. It’s like comparing Puck Fair to the Dublin Horse Show.


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