O'Mahony always had good head for heights
IRELAND v SOUTH AFRICA:Tough and versatile, Peter O’Mahony is a natural born leader in red and in green
Today is something of a benchmark day; a day for new leaders to be born. The new captain, Jamie Heaslip, is one of only three survivors from the Grand Slam starting XV three and a half years ago, and in the vanguard of this new generation for both provincial and national teams in transition is Peter O’Mahony. A baton is being passed on and he’s one who’s itching to grab it.
“We’re looking to create our own legacy,” says the Cork 23-year-old. “The boys have done what they’ve done, and there’s still a good few of them around and they’re going to be included in the new legacy that we’re going to create.”
It’s hard to credit he only made his Munster debut in January 2010 and his Ireland debut was as recently as last February against Italy. He and Donnacha Ryan were brought on simultaneously, and he likes the picture of them blessing themselves on the side of the pitch before they came on.
“So excited. So nervous. You just don’t want to let the fellas down. There’s no thinking time in international level, and you’ve just got to back yourself to know all the calls and just get on with the physicality of it.”
Since then he’s played against France, Scotland, England and New Zealand three times, and today faces South Africa. “I’ve been privileged to put on the jersey seven times now. It’s almost crazy when I say that to myself now. It makes me smile as well.”
As our interview in the foyer of the Carton House draws to a close, Jamie Heaslip breezes by in his own inimitable way. The new captain makes O’Mahony smile too. “He is different, but he’s different in his own good ways. Every captain I’ve been under has had different attributes, and he’s different as well. Fellas will row in behind him, no worries.”
O’Mahony himself has captained almost every side he’s played for, from Cork Con under-12s through to Pres Cork’s senior cup team and the Irish schools and Irish under-18s, 19s and 20s.
He was part of a Munster Schools Cup winning side captained by Scott Deasy in 2007 but not the following year when he was captain, a sore point.
“We lost to Castletroy in the semi-finals. Diarmuid McCarthy broke our hearts,” he recalls in reference to the latter’s match-winning brace of tries in a 23-22 defeat. “What can you do?”
The following season he went straight into the Munster Academy, but the desire to become a rugby player had been burning long before then.
“That’s why my old fella says, anyway,” he says in reference to his dad John O’Mahony, a Cork stalwart – aka Con John.
So from what age? “Three or four, I’d say, throwing line-outs in the back garden. I loved it. I used to go to his games. The subs used to mind me when he was crippled playing minor for Con, into CUH (Cork University Hospital) for cartilage clean-outs and stuff. I dunno. I just loved it.”
He’s not entirely kidding, for he began playing with the Con under-8s at the age of five. The pain of it. But it was never going to turn him off the game.
“In the first two or three sessions I was crying. The old fella was: ‘Get back in there kid. That’s the end of it’. But after two or three (sessions) I got used to it. It’s the same for all kids, isn’t it? You’ve just got to get on with it.”
The progression to the Con under-12s meant “the milestone” of two evening sessions a week and the club’s annual under-12 mid-term tours to Wales and France with club legend Fred Casey.
“He coached my dad under-12s. He’s been there for the bones of 40 years at this stage.”
There was also Paul Barr and others at Pres, and later in his adult Con career, Brian Walsh and Brian Hickey were huge influences, and ditto Ian Sherwin and co at the Munster Academy and latterly Tony McGahan and Rob Penney.
“I’ve been lucky with my coaches all the way through.”
Getting stuck in
Ask him when he thought he might be some way handy as a rugby players and he laughs, self-deprecatingly: “I always fancied myself, I suppose. But I don’t think it was that. It was more I just enjoyed it so much. I used to love getting stuck in, loved training, loved hanging around with the lads before and after games.”
A big stepping stone was captaining the Irish Under-18s in a Four Nations tournament in Glasgow, when Ireland beat Scotland and France before wearily running into a massive English team. “I still always call it my first international jersey. I have it up on the wall at home.”
Aside from good all-round footballing instincts and athleticism (he takes good lines and was quick enough to play as an emergency wing for Con in an AIL semi-final) as well as hardness, he has that Munster dog in him. If there’s a scrap brewing, he’s generally not far away.
Indeed, from the beginning he played all over the place, be it centre, backrow, or even at out-half in his U15 year. “We played Belvedere in our Junior Cup year when I was outhalf and we lost by about 80 points.” A career in the backrow was born.
No sooner had he begun carving a niche at openside than today he reverts to blindside. You wonder if his versatility is a hindrance.
“It’s honestly not. I love playing backrow and seven, six and eight are three difference positions, and six and eight are more similar. Seven is obviously a more specialist position but I just absolutely love playing backrow. It’s one of the best positions on the pitch, ball-wise and stuff.
“You’re always involved in something and I just really enjoy playing all three.”
He admits a run in one position usually helps. “But the way the game is at the moment, it’s just not going that way for me so I just have to get on with it. I played seven against Zebre and I hadn’t played there in a few weeks but I enjoyed that game as much as any.”
From knee-high to a grasshopper, he’s always been a fan too, of both the men in red and the men in green.
O’Mahony was a 10 and 12-year-old boy when Munster reached their first Heineken Cup finals, and a schools senior cup player when they were crowned in ’06 and ’08.
“It was hugely inspiring. I missed the Leicester game (2000), Neil Back, because my grandmother, my dad’s mum, died. But I was at every other final and semi-final and quarter-final. We were everywhere following the lads.”
Consumed by rugby
Rugby has always consumed him, and in his own uncomplicated way (he has no particular match-day rituals or favoured music selection, other than a mid-morning nap and later a walk around the pitch on arrival at the ground), even when he’s not playing he’s always been a fan of the outdoors.
He still has a surf kayak at home dating back to summer holidays working at his uncle Frank’s kayaking school in Castletownbere in West Cork.
“There was no TV down there. You were constantly outdoors. I do a small bit of shooting. Some of the lads like their TV, but I don’t have much interest in series and stuff. When we have our coffees I’m a bit out of the loop there. I prefer going for a walk. I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors.”
Straight from school, O’Mahony was pitched into the Munster Academy in 2008 at 18 and began training with his heroes. Talking to his girlfriend Jess on Wednesday night, he recalled how training with Paul O’Connell et al prompted him to finally remove the posters from his bedroom walls.
“You get over it and get on with it. They take you under their wing. They’re the same as the lads I used to play under-12s with. They become that close and it’s the same here in Carton House.”
Work? “Not at all. It’s a privilege. It’s the best job in the world; 100 per cent. It’s an absolute privilege to put on a green jersey. There’s no better privilege than that.” His hushed tone is almost reverential.
The three-game tour of New Zealand was as tough a learning curve as any 22-year-old in his rookie season could hope to experience. Touring there can make or break a player and O’Mahony, you can be full sure, is intent on ensuring the latter.
“They set the bar, really, don’t they? For a few weeks at home you’re thinking to yourself: ‘I’ve got to change a few things and look at a few areas of my game and I’ve got to improve’. That’s the level we’ve got to be at. An unbelievable experience.
“Those guys are the ultimate professionals. I’ve just got to keep learning, from the fellas in training too. That’s the most important thing. Because as soon as you stop doing that, you may as well go away home.”
He describes himself as one of the lucky ones (seven) who have been granted another chance to put Hamilton to rights. Now come the bruising Boks. “Their forwards are the catalyst for their game; their scrum, their lineout, their maul. We’ve got to front up and be better than ever there.
“I can’t wait.”