O'Mahony has been named on the bench for today's game against Japan. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
elder statesman

His role is changing, but Peter O'Mahony remains an important figure for Ireland

The flanker is by far the most experienced back row player in Andy Farrell’s squad.

IT’S THREE YEARS now since Peter O’Mahony delivered arguably the outstanding performance of a stellar career.

Ireland 16 New Zealand 9, 17 November 2018. Think back to that night, and the first image that flashes up is probably Jacob Stockdale’s wonderful chip and chase try.

Then the mind moves on to O’Mahony. There was that huge turnover penalty in the early stages of the second half. There was the breathtaking chase to pinch a bouncing ball off Ben Smith’s fingertips. Then there was the spine-tingling chorus of The Fields of Athenry ringing around the stadium as the exhausted Munster man left the field to a standing ovation.

“Absolutely immense,” was how Devin Toner described O’Mahony in those joyous moments after the full-time whistle.

“Pete was huge,” added head coach Joe Schmidt, before detailing how his flanker had played through the pain barrier for most of the game. “An absolute warrior.”

It was O’Mahony at his brilliant, inspirational best. Undroppable.

Three years on, his role in the squad has changed.

Over the course of the next three weekends, Jack Conan, Gavin Coombes, Caelan Doris, Nick Timoney, Josh van der Flier and potentially the versatile Tadhg Beirne will all fight it out with O’Mahony for a place in the back row.

Even accounting for the surprise retirement of CJ Stander – for so long the immovable force in the Ireland back row – there is perhaps no area of the squad where Andy Farrell has the same depth of options.

peter-omahony-claims-a-line-out O'Mahony was exceptional against New Zealand in 2018. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

It’s an intriguing mix of talent, and that’s before you look at those not included this month, with the likes of Dan Leavy, Max Deegan, Rhys Ruddock and Paul Boyle – to name a few – all hoping to play their way back into the picture.

But look at the figures beside the names of those in camp, and O’Mahony’s numbers jump off the page. 

With 76 caps, he is now by far the most experienced member of the back row, with Josh van der Flier next in line at 32 caps.

And while Andy Farrell has been quick to cap youth, we also know he places a huge value in experience, and he’s leaned heavily on O’Mahony across his first two years in charge.

O’Mahony made nine appearances for Ireland in 2020, more than any other member of the back row. That’s not just because he’s been around the block. He’s also been playing brilliant rugby.

He was outstanding over the Christmas period last year, and went into the 2021 Six Nations in strong form.

He started the opening fixture against Wales, only for his early red card to derail the rest of his championship. At that moment, it was tempting to wonder if that would mark the beginning of the end for a player who turned 32 in September. 

One month after Cardiff, O’Mahony signed a new two-year contract with the IRFU to take him up to the 2023 World Cup.

It was the clearest indication yet that he remained a major part of Farrell’s plans, but his role within the team has certainly changed. As the elder statesman of the back row, now more than ever he is expected to help others around him grow and develop.

peter-omahony-and-gavin-coombes O'Mahony is expected to help younger players, such as Gavin Coombes, to settle into international rugby. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

That much was evident when Farrell included O’Mahony in his squad for the July Tests against Japan and the USA, while handing other senior players an extended summer break.

“The likes of Peter, who was on the last Lions tour (2017). He’s not had to deal with a group like this before,” Farrell explained.

“His dynamics have completely changed and how he brings people along with him is unbelievably important.”

This next run of games will represent a much sterner challenge than those summer Tests, however, so it will be interesting to see how Farrell juggles his options in the back row, and how he views O’Mahony’s role within the squad. 

As expected, the Ireland head coach has opted for a strong starting team for today’s lunchtime encounter with Japan. One imagines that barring catastrophe, the all-Leinster combination of Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan that lines out in the Aviva today will also be in place when the All Blacks visit next week.

Yet O’Mahony, who has also started this season well with Munster, will fully fancy his chances of pushing for a jersey. 

Doris, for example, has generated much excitement across his nine caps to date, but next week’s game against New Zealand would represent his first shot at southern hemisphere opposition. Farrell will want to give Doris that exposure, but part of him will also be weighing up the trust he has in O’Mahony, a player who has delivered against New Zealand so often.

In total O’Mahony has played against the All Blacks seven times to date. Van der Flier has faced down the Haka four times. Conan has yet to tick that one off his bucket list.

peter-omahony-and-andy-farrell Farrell highly values O'Mahony's experience at Test level. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Even in 2019, when Ireland were so ruthlessly ripped apart by the All Blacks in Tokyo, O’Mahony was one of the few in green who tried to rally the team with lineout steals and turnovers before a tired, frustrated shoulder to Sam Whitelock killed any hope of an unlikely comeback.

Before that game his inclusion in the team was being questioned again, with Rhys Ruddock deemed unlucky to miss out.

“I think stats always tell part of the story but they don’t tell the complete picture,” Schmidt said, before referencing O’Mahony’s previous record against the southern hemisphere powerhouses.

“He has been a bit of a big moments player for us.”

O’Mahony has always had his doubters, and in the cruel, hard months that followed that World Cup exit, some wrote him off as an international Test player.

But the 32-year-old is still delivering, and is still viewed as a highly important and influential member of the squad.

Earlier this year he was name-checked, unprompted, by Paul O’Connell as the Ireland forwards coach fielded a question about a different player, who plays in a different position.

“You look at Peter O’Mahony at the moment and I think his experience of different coaching styles, being on a Lions tour, working with Joe (Schmidt), working with Rassie Erasmus, working with Steve Larkham and Johann van Graan now, he’s played with a lot of great players,” O’Connell said.

“His experience is really telling now in how he plays, (and) I don’t think he’s physically any different.”

As others around him improve, he’ll face a serious battle to keep his place in the squad for the 2023 World Cup, but the next chapter of O’Mahony’s career could see him reinvent himself as a seasoned, battle-hardened bench option – a valuable asset to help see out those decisive, high-pressure moments in the final quarter.

For all the talent available to Farrell across the back row, no player can match O’Mahony for experience.

The player himself has also become increasingly aware that he’s closer to the end of his international career than the start, something he touched on during that summer Test window.

“My aim is to play as well as I can if I’m selected for the team,” O’Mahony said. “To get better, to improve my rugby, keep learning, enjoy myself, you know? Things we sometimes forget about in the heat of the environment.

“It’s not going to be around forever for any of us, so it’s important to enjoy it.”

He may not be the force of old and the competition is certainly heating up, but the Munster veteran still has a huge amount to offer at this level. 

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella, and Gavan Casey look ahead to Ireland-Japan with the help of Japanese rugby expert Rich Freeman, while the lads also assess ‘Tier Two’ rugby two years out from the World Cup:

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

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