The clash of Bonnaire and O’Mahony is expected to be one of many intriguing battles when Munster throw down the gauntlet to the French heavyweights at Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier on Saturday.
There’s little between them in physique or style, but O’Mahony, with 14 Irish caps, is well behind in terms of the experience Bonnaire (70 French caps) brings to the Heineken Cup table.
Bonnaire has been such an iconic figure for over 12 years of top class rugby that he has built up a large following, with 23-year-old O’Mahony amongst his fans.
Asked this week what he might expect from the Clermont back row, O’Mahony immediately singled Bonnaire out for special mention: “He runs their line out, he has been there for so many years; he has been their talisman, he’s world class. He would be someone I would have looked up to as a young player, I’d like to think that I (also) bring something to the line out, something similar. Coming up through school, he was someone I would have been really impressed by and I would have watched videos of him. It’s nice to get a chance to come up against somebody like that. They’re the kind of challenges you relish in this European Cup.”
O’Mahony made clear his determination to make the starting line up on Saturday, despite a mild struggle with a foot injury. This week his Munster coach Rob Penney gave the flanker a 60-40 chance of recovering, O’Mahony described it as 90-10: “Yeah, at least that’s what I’m saying to the physiotherapists anyway.”
As the countdown begins in earnest so does O’Mahony’s level of anticipation and excitement increase: “It’s nerve-racking at times, when you get some of the pictures up on the blackboards, you get a bit nervous, relax again and then get to training and something goes wrong in the defensive line and you start to panic a bit. But I suppose that’s all part of it; this is my first semi-final and I’m excited to get stuck in. Sometimes it feels like it is a short week, sometimes it feels it’s forever but I’m getting through it. We (in Munster) measure ourselves on the Heineken Cup, that’s a huge week for the club and especially for what is a new group that we have.”
O’Mahony is impressed by what Clermont have achieved and respectful of their current position as tournament favourites, but he isn’t about to be intimidated by reputation: “Well, I’ve been lucky enough to play international rugby against the All Blacks and there have been plenty of teams I’ve been involved against that have been hyped, so there’s nothing new there. Obviously they’re a hugely impressive team but when you bring international rugby into it there’s obviously a different aspect (of experience and thinking).”
He did describe it as possibly the ultimate test for Munster, especially given where they have come from in a season of mixed results, a season rescued by a magnificent display of cup rugby in the win over Harlequins.
However, O’Mahony insisted that the win over Harlequins was quickly forgotten: “We put the Harlequins result to bed a few hours after the game, you realise that’s done, that’s history, there are no cups won, that it was only a quarter-final and that we had a semi-final to worry about. Playing the best team in France at the moment and having to play them away from home is probably the ultimate challenge for us.
“They’re huge, a forward orientated team for sure, and they also have a very impressive strike force out the backs. We would be hopeful of having done our analysis to find ways of putting a stop to them. The way to measure ourselves is to be able to impress the guys standing next to us, these (team mates) are the people you want to impress on the big occasions and that’s what Munster rugby prides itself on.”