Sean O’Brien may be looming large for the final episode of Ireland’s Six Nations story next week, the Lions Test starter captaining Leinster at Scarlets last night in his first game back since a hip injury sustained against Exeter on December 16, yet Leavy’s form as the current incumbent of the No7 shirt does not make the return of the Tullow Tank a foregone conclusion.
O’Mahony’s endorsement of the 23-year-old Leavy, who has grabbed his chance with gusto since replacing the injured Josh van der Flier in the first half of the opening game against France, stems from having to face his interprovincial rival.
“He’s been very impressive. I can speak from first hand, he’s a pain in the hole to play against and that’s a great compliment from a back row,” said the blindside flanker.
“And he’s been super to play alongside the last few weeks, he’s been a great voice. He’s one of the young fellas to come in but he’s doing an incredible amount of learning quickly, and I’m doing some learning off him as well.
“The way he plays the game, it’s obviously very physical and intense but it’s very smart, and he’s been brilliant for us the last three weeks.”
Now very much a senior player in the Ireland camp at the age of 28 and set to win his 46th Test cap against Scotland today, O’Mahony sees in Leavy the sort of bulletproof confidence that marks his generation of player out as ready for any challenge the international game can throw at them.
“Yeah, 100%, he’s well able to get stuck in and give his opinion, and that’s important for guys to grow up quick and if they’ve something to say, to say it, but obviously not if it’s not relevant.
“That’s something that they’ve copped on to quickly, that if they’ve something to say they’ll come across and have a word, and that’s invaluable for a group to learn like that quickly and he’s one of the guys I’ve been very impressed by.”
That is not to say Ireland are not in need of the experience O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, and their ilk can provide as the pressure grows and a Grand Slam comes into sharper focus with two games remaining.
Yet the Munster captain is confident the high stakes will not get the better of the young guns. “I don’t think it will. It will be there in the back of your head, obviously, but we’re going through each week and every game is massive for us, especially the last three games. Six Nations, as soon as you lose one you’re under big pressure.
“So we’ve had that pressure from day one, so this week doesn’t get any different from what the lads have experienced for the last three weeks.
“We’ve just got to prepare well in the run-in again because we’ve had this pressure, this internal pressure that we put on ourselves and the external pressure that gets put on us as well, and the lads have experienced that in the last few weeks.
“It doesn’t change. This game isn’t bigger than last week and it won’t be bigger the following week. They’re all massive games.”
It will come as no surprise that O’Mahony is relishing the possibilities such an occasion as today’s promises as Ireland look to combat a confident Scottish back row whose dominance of the breakdown at Murrayfield two weeks ago was to prove England’s undoing in their Calcutta Cup clash.
“It’s international rugby, the Six Nations, you’ve got to enjoy the battle with your opposite number or whatever guys want to call it. They’re going very well as a unit. They caused England a lot of problems a fortnight ago,” says O’Mahony.
“They’re quick over the ball, their breakdown skills are excellent, ball carry. They’re performing really well and it’s obviously an area that we’re going to have to be very strong and it’s probably going to be a good battle.”
O’Mahony was still working his way back to full match fitness after almost a year sidelined by a knee injury when Ireland lost at Murrayfield on the opening day of the 2017 Championship. He made quite the impact when he did get his chance of an Ireland return, an unexpected start against England that booked his ticket on the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand last summer.
It has been a more than productive year since that moment and the Corkman is having the time of his rugby life.
“It’s funny, the injury gives you a few months off and gives your body a chance to repair, obviously all the different niggles and stuff. You have got a good bolt going into pre- season when you do come back from an injury and that has certainly stood to me in the last 12 months, and I have enjoyed my rugby as well.
“It took me a while to get back to where I wanted to be but over the last couple of months, I have generally enjoyed myself, and with the provinces doing so well, we all want to be in the finals, which a lot of us are, and then the last few weeks have just been enjoyable and that is key for professional rugby.
“You have to enjoy what you are doing and a lot of us, if not all of us, certainly are in the last couple of weeks.”