O'Mahony returns `a better player'


It's an odd story certainly, and has a certain Irishness about it: player makes debut in Italy, wins second cap in World Cup quarter-final and then, two-and-a-half years later, wins third cap - again in Italy.

Darragh O'Mahony has been regularly reminded of this during the week, as if somehow he is both a veteran (Paddy Johns is the only other survivor from the 22-12 Treviso defeat two years ago) and a newcomer at the same time.

As the song goes, isn't it ironic? "Here I am back in Italy again. It's a curious coincidence," admits Moseley's easy-going and articulate left-winger from Cork. "But it's great to have the opportunity, be it Italy or anywhere else in the world."

The memories are also quintessentially that of an Irish winger. "I remember I hardly touched the ball. I think I got the ball once and an Italian landed on top of me at the same time. The Italians played us off the park that day. We didn't perform, and even though there were only 10 points in it, it wasn't a case of us nearly beating them, it was more a case of, `Thank God they didn't beat us by more'."

Memories of the 36-12 defeat to France are of similar vintage. "I did okay, I suppose. I didn't make any mistakes. But I didn't get an opportunity to do anything in the game - a little bit disappointing that my second cap bypassed me again."

He reckons he touched the ball twice, which makes for the grand total of three in two games. He'd be entitled to consider returning to where he played until one fateful day in UCC, namely out-half. Even for a "footballing" wing, it can be a pretty powerless position.

"In one way it's an awful position to play in, because you're dependant upon so many other people. People say to me, `Why do you play on the wing?' But the funny thing is, you can change the course of the game with one touch of the ball. You've just got to hang in there."

The game's changed radically since 1995, of course, and most of it to O'Mahony's benefit, though he's wary of the footballing winger's tag. "To a point that was good, but people thought then that I didn't have speed. I was never maybe the fastest winger in the world, but I was never caught for pace. But I have concentrated on my finishing and my speed at Moseley and that part of my game has come on more than any other in the professional era."

The fruits of his labour have been 26 league tries and another dozen for Moseley since he joined them 13 months ago. He was the club's player of the year last season. Yet it still seemed he'd been banished to back of the beyonds.

"It's just one of those things. People asked me if it upset me, but it didn't really because I had no control over it. I can only control how I play. For the last year - and I'm quite critical of my own performances - I've been playing the best rugby of my life."

Work and injuries had led him to conclude that he "needed a change of scene" and he signed a new two-year deal with Moseley during the summer. Ideally, he would like to finish out his career in England.

"I have a five-year plan and I would like to finish in England - though in the Premiership, hopefully with Moseley. But if not, then with somebody else."

Perceptions of the English second tier, or Premiership Two, as vastly inferior doesn't tally with Alain Rolland's recent assertion that they would beat any AIL side. "I certainly wouldn't come out and say Moseley would beat every team in Ireland, but it's a very strong division. You go out every week and you're playing against international players."

Nonetheless, the decision to play for Moseley and Leinster was a deliberate ploy to keep himself in the shop window, a decision which went curiously wrong when the IRFU decreed that O'Mahony and club team-mate Henry Hurley were ineligible - even though they had played twice in the interprovincials.

"That was a very messy situation and I think the less I say about that the better. But, nevertheless, the goalposts seemed to move in the middle of the season. It's not something that I want to have a war of words about."

O'Mahony resigned himself to life in Outer Mongolia, at least as representative selections went. Hence, you could have knocked him down with a feather duster when he was called into the A team against Canada. "That came out of the blue. There hadn't been a murmur or a whisper about that. But it was great that I got the opportunity when my form and my confidence were good."

Now, with more irony, he's been picked ahead of Richard Wallace, who is fit and scoring again, and Niall Woods, though he's probably never been in better shape.

Is O'Mahony a better player than the one who last played in Italy? "Yes, I am, because I'm now a professional player. I've devoted a lot more time. My speed has improved immeasurably and, luckily, I'm a more confident player than I was a few years ago. I would like to think I am a better player anyway."