Peter O’Mahony believes he is a stronger player, person and leader for the experiences he and his Munster team went through in the last 12 months.
The Munster captain hit the ground running on Saturday, leading his team to a bonus-point Guinness PRO14 win over Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park. It was his seasonal debut and, in his 73 minutes on the field, he showed all the bristle, intensity, work-rate and effectiveness that earned him the Lions Test captaincy in the series opener against the All Blacks in June. That game at Eden Park had been O’Mahony’s final act of a remarkable campaign that he had begun sidelined by the knee injury suffered at the World Cup in October 2015 and which was shaped by the sudden death of head coach Anthony Foley in Paris last October 16.
O’Mahony would lead Munster on an unlikely run to the Champions Cup semi-finals, the top of the PRO12 table at the end of the regular season and an appearance in the league final, while also making his mark with a standout performance in green as Ireland denied Six Nations rivals the Grand Slam.
Even the Lions tour was full of surprises, O’Mahony first earning the captaincy at Sam Warburton’s expense, before finding himself carrying the can for the first-Test defeat and not featuring again, as he re-dedicated his efforts to helping tour captain Warburton and the squad prepare for the final two games of what was a drawn series.
It makes for a remarkable narrative and the Corkman, 28, cannot help but feel stronger for the experience.
“Yeah, I do. We’d a lot of experiences last year, you know, with Axel and the European side of it. Things that shouldn’t happen or things you shouldn’t have to deal with that we did have to deal with. Then there were semi-finals of both competitions along with a final. I personally had a tour at the end of it. You’ve got to take from all of those experiences and hopefully, I can bank them.”
Many of Munster’s fans might expect that the uncertainty surrounding the change in management that is likely to occur mid-season — when director of rugby Rassie Erasmus returns to his native South Africa — might prove a distraction ahead of the trip to the Aviva on Saturday to renew rivalries with Leinster.
Yet, O’Mahony believes Munster are stronger than when Erasmus took over in July 2016 and better able to ignore the speculation about the search for his successor.
“If you came into a meeting this time last year and then came into a meeting this morning, you wouldn’t know from a background point of view or a players’ point of view that there’s anything happening. It’s a professional sport, these things are going to happen and a lot of the players who are there now, they’ve been through this before, so all we can do is put our heads down and train hard and listen to the feedback.
“Change happens and the new guy is going to come in and do his thing we’re all going to row in behind that.”
Munster, though, are in a different place than they were 12 months ago, when Erasmus labelled his side the underdogs in a pool containing Glasgow, Leicester, and Racing 92.
“We came sixth or seventh and scraped our way into Europe and I wouldn’t have begrudged people for underestimating us, because they were right to. We weren’t performing well, but I knew there was a big season in us. I believed that [the previous season] wasn’t us and we performed relatively well last year.
“We got lessons from some of the bigger teams in Europe. We got a good lesson from Saracens [in the Champions Cup semi-final] and a good lesson from Llanelli [Scarlets] at the end of the season [in the PRO12 final]. They’re lessons we have to take if we want to move forward as a club, if we want to move forward as a club that wants to compete for higher honours.”
What of the hopes and aspirations for this year?
“The mood is ambitious, positive,” said O’Mahony. “Guys are enjoying training, we had a great pre-season. We enjoyed last season as much as we could, we learnt a huge amount, rugby-wise, and learnt a huge amount individually about ourselves. Probably a lot of guys had to do a lot of growing up quite quickly last year and you need to make that kind of stuff stand to you.
“Not just rugby-wise, but on all sides.”
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