'We were barely finished the Junior Cert and Pete had us in on our summer holidays doing line-outs'

Peter O’Mahony’s Lions captaincy might have come as a surprise, but he’s been building towards Saturday since he was a child.

HE’S BEEN AFFECTIONATELY labelled a ‘mongrel’ on tour, but the Lions captain might best be described as a purebred.

Peter O’Mahony has spent the bones of his 27 years building towards tomorrow morning.

Peter O'Mahony Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Growing up in Broadale, Douglas, Cork, it wasn’t so much posters of Irish rugby icons which adorned his walls, but rather photographs of a young O’Mahony standing waist-high to leviathans of the southern hemisphere. Pictures with Francois Pienaar and Jonah Lomu, to name just two, were both prized possessions and proclamations. To ordinary rugby fans their status within the game was near mythical; to a schoolboy from Cork, their greatness was attainable.

The last time the British and Irish Lions beat New Zealand in a Test at Eden Park – their sole victory at the 117-year-old stadium – was in 1959, and it was another Irishman, Ronnie Dawson, who captained the cream of the crop from either side of the Irish Sea.

At 7:35pm local time (8.35AM Irish time), a 27-year-old O’Mahony will aim to emulate the Dublin hooker’s success, and will join a scarcely populated pantheon of rugby greats from his region in being entrusted with Lions captaincy.

The plaudits from all corners of this nation have been more than forthcoming, column inches filled by the dozen as to how and why he deserves the honour. It’s just as well he’s 18,000 kilometres away or he’d puke. O’Mahony’s greatest strength as a leader is that it’s never about him only, and never has been.

Simon Zebo celebrates at the final whistle with Peter O'Mahony Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Just over 10 years ago, Simon Zebo’s magic aided he and O’Mahony’s school, Presentation Brothers College, in seeing off bitter rivals Christians 13-3 in the Munster Schools Senior Cup final – equalling the red half of Cork school rugby’s 27 senior titles.

As an Arctic wind whipped in over the North Terrace and blew towards the Sunday’s Well end of what was then Musgrave Park, Zebo fielded a wayward clearance kick from Robbie O’Donoghue and sidestepped two defenders just behind the halfway line. The seven subsequent seconds saw him rinse his opposition winger and sell a kick-dummy before accelerating past oncoming fullback Odhrán Mulrooney and touching down in the right-hand corner. It remains one of the finest tries ever seen on that turf.

A 17-year-old Peter O’Mahony’s impact on that final, however, was even more omnipotent than that of the dazzling right winger outside him. He’d spent three years trying to drag his team from the doldrums.

“When we were in second year of school, our team was dreadful, really,” recalls Peter Kelleher, who starred as hooker in that now iconic Pres side.

It was after Junior Cup when we were allowed to start lifting in line-outs. We were barely finished the Junior Cert and Pete had us in on our summer holidays doing line-outs, three days a week for the whole summer. Bear in mind this was to get ready for the Bowen Shield in fourth year. He was a leader from the start.

“In third year we got beaten in every game, but in fourth year we got to the final. That’s when we started becoming a team, I suppose.

“I think 11 of our team went on to play for Ireland underage. Pete was genuinely the main reason why, I suppose, because he kind of galvanised us with an element of professionalism long before any of us were anywhere near that. But go back to under-12s with Con’ – he was the exact same.”

A year after that 2006 Bowen Shield final defeat to arch nemesis Christians, a portion of that Pres crop reaped revenge on their crosstown equivalents. On the biggest day of their lives to that point, Kelleher benefitted from an audacious O’Mahony offload, with the back row having taken two defenders out of the game before putting the ball in Kelleher’s bread-basket, to crash over for Pres’ second score after Zebo had broken the deadlock.

“Beautiful offload all right,” says the man known colloquially as Kellogs. “He was still lucky I had the gas to get in from halfway, but yeah, it was a sumptuous assist I guess.”

Time distorts all memories, of course. One which Kelleher recalls more clearly was an exchange he had with O’Mahony while practicing his line-out throws moments before kick-off in that ’07 final. It was this brief discussion, and not merely O’Mahony’s offload, which had the most profound effect upon his own performance that grey afternoon in Cork.

“I remember missing every line-out in the warm-up, and Pete grabbed me on the way in. He says, ‘Come on, get your head together and forget about that. You’re the best fecking thrower around, so don’t worry about it’. Something along those lines, like. Maybe not exactly that. But honestly, whatever he said, it did make me think: ‘Forget about the warm-up, it’s about the game’. And sure I don’t think we missed a single line-out in the game itself.”

‘I thought I was ready for it, but he hit me the hardest I’ve ever been hit in my entire life’

Billy O’Regan wore the red of Pres’ opposition that day, and came out on the wrong side of a bruising encounter. O’Mahony’s ferocity was more than evident in that ’07 final, he says, but it was hardly surprising to O’Regan himself, who had first felt his friend’s wrath on the field a couple of years prior.

“My earliest memory of playing against him would have been in the group stages of the Bowen Shield a few years before Senior Cup,” he says.

“Literally within the opening two minutes, he took a short ball off a ruck. I thought I was ready for it, but he hit me the hardest I’ve ever been hit in my entire life. I’m not just saying that. Before I knew it, our team was standing in a huddle and I was asking what the score was. The game had just kicked off!

“Jack Bransfield, the prop next to me, was like, ‘would you cop on? You’re fuck-arsing around now, let’s get serious!’ I couldn’t understand what was wrong with Jack, or what I was doing wrong, and then I realised, ‘Jesus, whatever just happened to me there must have been absolutely horrendous’. That was my first collision with Pete.

“Playing against him you’re thinking you’re just not going to win a line-out, like. You’re just not going to win a ball at any stage. He was too good a line-out operator. Him and Kellogs, in fairness, they made a formidable duo.”

O’Regan, however, remains one of the few who has played on either side of the O’Mahony divide. Having battled against him for several years at schools level, he later lined out alongside him in the inter-pros. But that wasn’t his only first-hand experience of O’Mahony’s life-long mission to make a living from the oval ball.

“Playing with him then for Munster under-19s, he was a pro from the beginning. His attention to detail, the aura and the respect he held was just special,” he says, “but I was chatting to my mum about it last night, and she reminded me that back in third year of school, after Junior Cup, he came down to Derrynane with us, and he had his boxes of protein.

“I remember he spilled protein all over the dining room floor, and he was going ballistic. Sure I didn’t even know what protein was, and I remember just thinking, ‘Oh no, Peter’s gone off on another one, here’. He was there: ‘Fuck sake! Fuck this!’

“But it just shows that even at 15 or 16, he had his nutrition down to a tee. It was a mark of the man.

Ironically given his bemusement at the time, O’Regan is now Head Strength and Conditioning Coach and Nutritional Advisor at CrossFit Returns in the pair’s hometown. He concludes that “anyone who’s played with Peter O’Mahony isn’t surprised that he’s made it this far.”

All said, it strikes as more surprising in retrospect that O’Mahony didn’t captain his school to victory over O’Regan’s Christians in that ’07 final. Instead, it was his Munster teammate-to-be and 2015 AIL winner Scott Deasy, a year O’Mahony’s senior, who led ‘Tation’ to provincial honours.

The Lansdowne fly-half learned of O’Mahony’s Lions captaincy in Italy, where he and dozens of Munstermen past and present will attend Duncan Williams’ wedding on the same day as the first Test. Naturally, he and O’Mahony’s holidaying teammates aren’t exactly shocked by Warren Gatland’s decision. More surprising, according to Deasy, was the rapid nature with which a young O’Mahony established himself as a senior leader within the Munster ranks, while still in his early 20s.

“It’s a funny one,” he says, “because, as everyone knows, school is kind of hierarchical, so Pete as a fifth year would have deferred to the sixth years because there was quite a few of them in the team. He wouldn’t have spoken much but we were very much aware of his ability on the pitch. He was instrumental in our cup run that year.

“Everybody knows about his line-out prowess, but his ability in the line-out was evident then as well. He dominated both offensive and defensive line-outs. Schools rugby has come on an awful lot in the 10 years since, and we wouldn’t have been massive gym-goers, but I do remember at eight o’clock every morning before school, Pete, Kellogs and the forwards would go in and do line-outs for half an hour.

It’s been covered plenty this week, but he’s a very intelligent player. Even at that stage, when he was only in fifth year, a lot of plays went through him. But from a leadership perspective, he led through actions rather than words.”

Deasy graduated from Pres a year before his younger teammate, and spent three years in Munster’s academy. Such was O’Mahony’s progress when he joined his former schools captain in the underage ranks, however, both were awarded development contracts at the same time, with O’Mahony having spent a year less at academy level. It’s a trajectory which has continued apace.

“All of the young guys were kind of bit-part players, but then in the 2011 season Pete was the first of our generation, along with Stephen Archer, really, to kick on into the first 23, whereas a lot of us were only covering if internationals were away.

“He was playing week in, week out while a lot of us were still playing Munster ‘A’ and AIL. He ended up captaining a pre-season game against Gloucester or London Irish, I think, when he was only 20 or 21. We were all suitably surprised, but he’s never really taken a step back from there.

“2011/2012, just as he was breaking into the Irish team, he was brought into the leadership group in Munster as well. It would have been Dougie Howlett, Paulie, ROG and Pete, and Pete would have been only 21 or 22. They had eyes on him to groom him for the captaincy or a leadership role, and he hasn’t disappointed in fairness to him.”

Peter O'Mahony Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

That he hasn’t, and no more so than during a year when his inherent ability to galvanise a collective has been especially important.

“He will grow into being a special leader of this group of men,” Rob Penney said when appointing O’Mahony as Munster captain in 2013. Those words could scarcely have rung truer three seasons later, as the Cork man, overcome by the untimely loss of Munster’s head coach and a legendary figure in Anthony Foley, fronted up to the cameras at a press conference ahead of the southern province’s Champions Cup fixture with Glasgow.

And then came the game itself, and O’Mahony’s response to Jonny Gray’s assertion that Munster were ‘too emotional’ when speaking with referee Jerome Garces, who had pleaded for calm.

“Don’t fucking tell us what emotions we should have,” O’Mahony barked at his opposing captain, with a sharp push of Gray’s chest. Donncha O’Callaghan, who relayed the moment in a recent Times piece, described it as ‘the day we all saw our little brother grow up’.

There have been countless similar and more subtle moments since which aptly portray just what O’Mahony meant to his fellow Munstermen during a season when they needed him most.

On 4 November last year, Ospreys trailed their hosts 19-0 during their Pro12 visit to Cork, but had a line-out on Munster’s 10-metre line. O’Mahony, as is his wont, had already pinched two Ospreys throw-ins, and so the Welsh region’s hooker Sam Parry aired the ball out in an attempt to bypass him at the front.

Up went O’Mahony again, this time to the stratosphere, and ripped another one from beneath Lloyd Ashley’s nose to a guttural cacophony of noise. However, in his efforts to foil the Ospreys’ set-piece once more, O’Mahony jumped free of his lifters, violently crash-landing on his head, much to the concern of both fans and referee Marius Mitrea. On noticing O’Mahony lying motionless beneath the ensuing ruck, the Italian sharply blew his whistle.

The Munster man rose immediately once the cage of bodies cleared, perplexed at why the game had been halted. Mitrea’s query as to his wellbeing was dismissed with a blasé wave of the hand. Niall Scannell, who checked in on his felled captain from over his shoulder, caught a brief glimpse of O’Mahony’s face and burst into laughter before preparing for the resulting scrum.

Axel’s passing came mere months after the birth of O’Mahony’s first child – a daughter, Indie. Both doubtless accelerated his emergence as the undeniable colossus we’ll see lead the Lions into the belly of the beast on Saturday. Within the space of half a year he was no longer the young skipper, but a father figure on and off the pitch, with dependants on either side of the whitewash.

The captain was suddenly forced to assume the role that Foley had represented within the context of his own career.

Their dynamic was indeed special. Foley, relatively inexperienced in his role, perceived his leader to be almost an extension of himself, and had enormous trust in O’Mahony’s capabilities as a catalyst within his ranks, even when the latter was injured for a prolonged spell.

Saracens  George Kruis  and Munster’s Peter O’Mahony Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

At a Monday morning video session following Munster’s woeful 24-7 defeat to Leinster at Thomond Park in December 2015, Kiwi recruit Tyler Bleyendaal – whom Foley had bent over backwards to vouch for – fell foul of O’Mahony, and indeed reportedly welled up such was the lambasting he received from his captain.

This was a team session of the soul-searching variety, no holds barred, with O’Mahony leading the meeting having watched Munster’s heavy defeat from the stand while still crippled by the ACL tear which had ended his World Cup. He vociferously labelled Bleyendaal ‘a 10 that can’t kick the fucking ball’ after the fly-half’s paltry display with the boot, leaving his teammate on the precipice of tears as the rest of Munster’s players braced themselves for the aftershock.

It was O’Mahony’s childhood friend Simon Zebo, or as he referred to the outside back, ‘a fucking British and Irish Lion and Ireland international that can’t fucking defend’, who took the brunt of his second onslaught. This wasn’t school.

Zebo, by all accounts, returned serve, but O’Mahony was taking names, as he had been entrusted to do.

Bleyendaal and Zebo were dropped for Munster’s 9-7 victory over Ulster at Ravenhill the following weekend.

Both would subsequently prove their mettle in the intervening 18 months, and both rallied around their captain when he needed them most last October.

It won’t have been similar rollickings which have seen O’Mahony named captain for Saturday’s Test, but rather what such tirades represent: An obsession with honest, balls-to-the-wall endeavour. It’s a trait he’s possessed since early childhood.

“He was always obsessed,” O’Mahony’s younger brother, Mark tells The42. “He still is, really. Everything revolved around the rugby ball. Like, he definitely shaved a hundred points off his Leaving Cert because of the effort he put into rugby. 100%, he did.

“He always seemed like a man with a plan I suppose, really, like. I remember when we were kids, we’d come home from school and he’d sit me down and make the plan for the evening. Sure I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Why did we even need a plan, you know? I was about five. But he had his head screwed on from a young age and just knew what he wanted to do.

He came in home one day – he was only a week into college – he came in the front door and flung his bag on the floor. And he goes, ‘Nah, I’m not going to stick this at all. I’m just going to play rugby for the rest of my life’. I just remember laughing in his face about it. He couldn’t have proved me more wrong, I suppose, really.

24-year-old Mark this week earned an honours degree in CIT, but has had his thunder stolen somewhat. “Forever in his shadow,” he laughs, “and I’ll never get out of it now!”

His elder brother’s studies might have been swiftly parked as he pursued rugby at full-tilt, but one piece of academia which sticks in the memory recently resurfaced in the O’Mahony household, much to the entertainment of the family.

“We found a piece of homework belonging to him from second year of school. It was like an A4 sheet where you had to write something for every letter of the alphabet. Obviously most letters had some association with the rugby, and the teacher had written a big message at the end saying, ‘Obviously rugby is huge in your life. Maybe some day you’ll get to wear the Munster jersey or even the Ireland jersey if you’re lucky enough’.

“It’s funny to look back on things like that.”

It’s funnier looking forward, as the man who watched many a Lions Test alongside his big brother gears up to watch one in altogether different circumstances. He’s still coming to terms with it.

“It was bizarre, all right, to hear he was named captain. He thought because he was injured for so long, and the way CJ Stander was playing, that he hadn’t a hope of going on tour. He felt there was an outside chance that just maybe he’d get on the plane, but more than likely he was never going to make it. He felt he didn’t have enough time.

“Even remembering watching Lions tours with him on the TV years ago, and we’d be saying, ‘Look at those men out there. The best of the best. Imagine you were in that position’.

“It’s actually insane that my brother, who’s only three years older than me, is now in that position. And this time I’m watching him on the TV.”

Of course, many would argue that there’s nothing sane about Peter O’Mahony, at least as soon as his studs touch grass. And yet, for all the fawning incredulity which surrounded his confirmation as Lions captain, it was merely an affirmation for Peter O’Mahony, who aged 15 sacrificed summer holidays so that one day he might achieve exactly this.

He was a man with a plan all along.

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