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'He has that Paul O'Connell DNA in him, being a Munster man'

Cork man Peter O’Mahony will lead the Lions out for the first Test against the All Blacks.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

OF ALL THE storylines we had anticipated in New Zealand this summer, Peter O’Mahony captaining the Lions in a Test match hadn’t really entered into the thinking.

The Ireland blindside had done well to make the tour after starting just once in this year’s Six Nations, an opportunity that only came about when Jamie Heaslip suffered an injury in the warm-up before the England fixture.

British and Irish Lions Peter O’Mahony Peter O'Mahony, Lions Test captain. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

And even with Sam Warburton picking up an ankle issue in the opening game, O’Mahony and the Lions captaincy didn’t quite connect in our minds.

When the Cork man was handed the skippership for the Lions’ clash with the Māori All Blacks, however, it finally clicked. A week out from the first Test, Warren Gatland was backing O’Mahony and his “Munster mongrel” to inspire.

The 27-year-old, having been excellent a week before against the Crusaders, delivered another superb display as the Lions’ balanced back row of O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau showed its quality once again.

And suddenly it was a very real prospect. We began to hear of how well respected O’Mahony had become within the Lions squad, how much his words were hung onto, how he was demanding more from others on the training pitch.

His history is that of a pure leader, having led essentially every team he has played for since first taking on the job with Cork Con’s U12s.

And today came the confirmation – Peter O’Mahony will captain the Lions in Saturday’s first Test against the All Blacks, becoming the 11th Irishman to lead the Lions in a Test.

Gatland and his coaching staff would obviously have loved to have a fully-fit and firing Sam Warburton ready for this series opener, but they have utter faith in O’Mahony’s ability to lead the Lions.

“He’s got the respect of the group, that’s for sure, by his actions and not just by what he’s been saying as a captain,” says Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree.

Peter O'Mahony receives a hongi after the game O'Mahony has a strong history of leading teams. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Get on with things – it’s that Munster kind of aggression around everything we do in training, determination, almost ‘Follow me, lads.’

“He has that Paul O’Connell kind of DNA in him, being a Munster man. He’s a good guy as well, very diligent, not afraid in training of saying, ‘Lads, this isn’t good enough.’ He’s pulling along the standards, along with the coaches.

“You look at his game last Saturday night [against the Māori All Blacks] - involvements high and effective, aggressive. I thought he dealt with the referee well as well, respectfully speaking to the referee without being in his ear too much.

“I’ve enjoyed working with him. I’ve coached against him for a long time and he’s always a bloody handful when you’re playing against Ireland, but I’m delighted he’s on the tour.”

It’s a remarkable rise for O’Mahony, though few would have doubted his future Lions credentials when he was first breaking through into the Munster and Ireland set-ups.

The former Pres boy suffered a ruptured ACL in the 2015 World Cup and missed a year of rugby, only getting back onto the pitch with Munster this season.

There was naturally a period of finding his feet again but his form with Munster grew and grew, putting him in the frame for the Six Nations, before a hamstring issue ahead of the opener against Scotland cut him down.

But for that final opportunity against England, many have suggested O’Mahony wouldn’t have made this Lions tour, but Rowntree reveals that the Irish back row is a man who was always going to be in the mix.

Peter O'Mahony speaks to his team before the game O'Mahony is respected in this Lions squad. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think he was one player who would have been earmarked from an early stage for a Lions tour. He’s exactly the character you need – a guy who would get on with things even if he wasn’t involved in the Test squad.

“He would pull along the rest of that group and we need that on Lions tours. His form at the end of the Six Nations and for Munster, and he’s led Munster well after the Six Nations, that’s got him on the tour.”

O’Mahony can come across as an intense individual from the outside, with his piercing stares during press conference rarely breaking into smiles.

He is a no-nonsense sort of character, although Rowntree says there is a lighter side to O’Mahony within the squad and stresses the importance of that.

“He’s a good fella, he’s able to relax. I can’t speak highly enough of the fella. He’s been great, he’ll be great for the group. The lads respect his actions and want to follow him.

“This is as intense a gig as I have ever done. We seem to have been in a hundred hotels in the last week. You need to switch off. You need guys who can flick in and out of intensity. He has got that. Off the field, you don’t see him growling at people in the dining room.”

Perhaps not, but O’Mahony is ready to growl at the All Blacks and back it up with a bite.

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Murray Kinsella

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