Looking at the ratings of the Irish players in the Monday papers, I noticed that all of them were eight or nine except for Peter O’Mahony, who was given a 10 out of 10.
That’s a mistake. He should have been given a 12.
Now that’s impossible, I hear you say. You can’t do better than 10. Ten is flawless, perfect.
That’s my point. On Saturday night, O’Mahony went beyond perfect, he did the impossible.
It was the only way we could win, so he did it.
You often hear about players ‘giving it their all’ or ‘giving it everything’, ‘leaving nothing on the pitch’.
But what if ‘their all’ or ‘everything’ isn’t enough? What happens then? Do you just accept it, plough on, and lose with honour?
At some point during the game, or it may have been before the game, I think Peter O’Mahony realised that ‘his all’ wasn’t going to be enough to beat the All Blacks, 10 out 10 just wouldn’t do it.
So he reached beyond himself into the impossible.
He went beyond perfect.
It happens, sometimes, in sport. Very rarely. And when it does, ah now. When we witness something that can’t be happening, can’t be real, it’s so shocking that our minds can’t reconcile what our eyes are seeing. It can’t be processed. So we have to reach somewhere else.
Into imagination, or faith.
When John McEnroe was challenging the imperious and flawless tennis God, Bjorn Borg, in the early 80s, he realised his best wasn’t going to be good enough. He gave his best in the titanic Wimbledon final of 1980, in what is often considered the greatest final in SW19, (certainly up to Federer and Nadal in 2008) and he was beaten in five incredible sets.
So McEnroe waited and worked and seethed and went beyond his best the following year, beyond perfect.
He did the impossible, beating Borg on grass, transforming himself from greatness into myth.
I think O’Mahony’s team-mates knew what he was about on Saturday night, too.
They probably knew when they saw his reaction to the Haka, in the huddle before the game.
I think great players just know, and that’s something.
When you realise that the most immense will is on your team and not theirs, it’s some lift.
Hence, who do they turn to for the first Irish lineout (which was critical)? Devin Toner, the tallest, the specialist?
No, they go for beyond perfect. Peter O’Mahony.
They turned to him and he produced for them all night. They knew he would.
Likewise, it’s something for the opposition.
In the second half, when the All Blacks saw O’Mahony take a battering at a maul to impossibly keep his feet and conjure a penalty Ireland so badly needed, they knew. When they were pressing the line out wide (out wide!) and Boden kicked through, and they saw O’Mahony impossibly outsprint Ben Smith to grab the ball and save Ireland, they knew.
When O’Mahony was clearly suffering from a hip injury but impossibly picked himself up and dragged himself around the pitch (and dragged the other 14 Irish players with him), winning yet another turnover, they knew.
Seeing what kind of impossible O’Mahony was up to, the visitors realised they were in deep trouble. And they knew they couldn’t match it. How could they?
Of course that roused them to vaster efforts (which is what great teams do), especially when O’Mahony had to go off, injured with 17 or so minutes to go. But by then it was too late. Going beyond perfect had inoculated all the other Irish players with possibility, and the die had been cast.
Now, it’s one thing to go beyond perfect and ‘give your all’ in a Guinness PRO14 against a cranky and recalcitrant Glasgow outfit in September.
It’s wonderful and joyful and we’re all lifted a little. But some moments matter more than others and the ‘cometh the hour’ moment to beat New Zealand for the first time ever in a century of trying on Irish soil matters more than most.
Life defining sporting moments don’t come around too often — ask any Olympian.
It’s also one thing to do this in an individual sport, lifting yourself, an individual, above an individual opponent, lifting yourself beyond possibility in the moment that matters — that’s life-defining. We saw that with Redgrave and Sampras and Ali, who have all passed into myth.
But to lift your whole team, to bring 14 or 10 others with you over the line, against the combined will of a great team of opponents, as O’Mahony did last Saturday night and Roy Keane did against Juventus in 1999, and Henry Shefflin did against Galway in 2014, that’s special. Really special.
And when you do it time after time for club and country, then a transubstantiation into who and what you are within our hearts and minds comes to pass.
When we see somebody pour his being out into every shuddering collision, every lung-defying run, every muscle-screaming carry.
Empty and injured but still pouring, still giving, into a debt we cannot repay. Restructuring a reality, transforming hope into the unlikeliest of new truths. Then our hearts believe what our eyes and mind can’t fathom. Then greatness becomes legend and legend becomes myth.
Myths redefine our values and norms, indicating what is possible, however unlikely.
That’s what O’Mahony did on Saturday night — he redefined what’s possible and we can never go back to our former selves. Once we experience what is beyond perfect, we can never unfeel it.
And who would want to?