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O'Mahony follows in mentor O'Connell's footsteps to captain the Lions

‘It’s a way maybe of paying them back for the hard work they put into me.’

Murray Kinsella reports from Rotorua

HE’S HAD PLENTY of practice for this.

Peter O’Mahony has known captaincy since he was given the role for the first time with the Cork Con U12s and he has learned from some of the great Irish leaders along the way.

Pres College in Cork, the Munster underage teams, his club side at Cork Con, the senior Munster squad, Ireland on the 2013 tour of North America. Now the Lions.

Peter O'Mahony O'Mahony in Rotorua after being named captain. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It’s evident why other players follow O’Mahony on the pitch, with his passion and spirit standing out even if they are hard to quantify. Warren Gatland handing the Cork man the Lions’ captaincy for Saturday’s meeting with the Māori All Blacks was no great surprise.

But the man himself puts this remarkable streak of captaining essentially every team he has played for since U12s down to a bit of fortune here and there.

“Sometimes guys get, not pigeon-holed, but you get picked as captain as a young fella in schools teams and naturally you might fall into a few teams… look, I’ve been very lucky with the teams that I’ve been part of growing up.

“They’ve been successful, guys around me have been successful and the amount of people I’ve learnt off – not just the captains who I’ve been involved with, but the other players I’ve been around as well.

“The amount of learning I’ve taken from them is huge, you’d hope you’ve picked up a couple of things that they’ve helped you with and brought them through as well.”

The great Paul O’Connell was “hugely influential” on O’Mahony’s career, but he points also to Brian O’Driscoll, David Wallace and Anthony Foley.

“It’s a way maybe of paying them back for the hard work they put into me,” says O’Mahony of his latest honour.

That O’Mahony is on this tour at all is an indicator of his resilience and grit. He spent a year out of the game after rupturing his ACL at the 2015 World Cup and though he returned with Munster earlier this season, he had frustrations along the way.

British and Irish Lions Peter O’Mahony O'Mahony was excellent against the Crusaders. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He recalls bumping into O’Connell in a corridor of Munster’s high performance centre in UL at the start of this year’s Six Nations, when a hamstring injury had ruled O’Mahony out of the opening two games of the tournament.

He was frustrated, eager to represent his country, but also understanding that not playing for Ireland would affect his Lions chances. O’Connell offered some calming words.

“He said to keep the head down, keep tipping away, that there was big games coming up in Europe [with Munster].

“He said he [Gatland] would watch them, so keep the head down and keep battling away, worry about the next weekend and performing for whoever you’re playing for.”

Fortunately for O’Mahony, he got his opportunity earlier that that, regaining fitness to be named on Ireland’s bench for the closing fixture of the tournament at home against England.

Even still, the Lions was out of the picture.

“I didn’t think I was going I was going to get picked for the Lions, I didn’t think I had played enough rugby before then.”

But Jamie Heaslip’s back injury flared up in the warm-up and suddenly O’Mahony was pitched into the starting team. He proceeded to unleash every ounce of his frustration on Eddie Jones’ side, leading the attack on their lineout and leading his team-mates around the pitch.

Peter O’Mahony with his daughter O'Mahony with his daughter Indie. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The story is that Gatland was watching that contest and made up his mind about O’Mahony there and then, but the blindside flanker doesn’t see his Lions involvement as being about one performance.

“I have put a lot of hard work into my career and you have got to take your opportunities when they come,” says O’Mahony. “Sometimes they are unfortunate for other guys but it doesn’t matter, you have to be selfish.

“I use that word… it is not a selfish game but sometimes you have to play well when you need to play well and that day I played alright. It wasn’t just that day; I would like to say I have played some good games for Munster as well this season.

“I went through a lot – even the days when we lost, you have got to take your lessons. It wasn’t just that day, there was a lot of hard work going into that, not just over the last 12 months but the last few years.

“Not that I was ever meant to be here but I have worked hard and all the 41 guys who have been picked have worked hard, so I can’t just say it was one day.”

O’Mahony is now happily ensconced in the Lions set-up and his first start against the Crusaders last weekend couldn’t have gone much better as he stole a lineout, offered nice handling skills and thundered into contact when required.

Off the pitch, it has been a new experience for him leaving his one-year-old daughter Indie at home.

“Yeah, it’s difficult, my first time being away for a long period from Indie, but the flip side is you’re touring with the Lions and it doesn’t happen very often.

Peter O'Mahony O'Mahony is set for his first match as Lions captain. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“There’s only 800-odd fellas who’ve ever been capped for the Lions so it’s a special time. It is difficult in one aspect but I’m loving every minute of it really.”

And as he gets set to follow in his mentor O’Connell’s footsteps, Lions coach Warren Gatland is expecting O’Mahony to bring something the former Munster lock also brought as captain. A certain Munster spirit.

“It’s not something that you can quantify about what Munster bring to a game,” says Gatland. “It’s a special pride, sometimes the performances they can produce, it’s done consistently over the years.

“Being able to dig deep and bring performances from places where a lot of players individually or teams collectively often can’t do.

“That’s Munster never giving up and playing for each other and that’s what you’re looking for. I think that’s what Peter will bring to the team on Saturday.”

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Murray Kinsella

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