Peter O’Mahony prepares for battle of European titans
Munster captain eager to make up for lost time as Toulouse come to Thomond
Peter O’Mahony: “Two very proud clubs coming together and it’s always a great occasion. It’s always physical and almost violent.” Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Perhaps more than any other team in Europe, the benchmark for a successful season or not in the Munster firmament is reaching the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup. Anything less is failure. A quarter-final in the premier European competition constitutes a minimum requirement. The league comes second. Munster are true Europhiles.
Hence, watching on from the outside for the last two years was all the more painful.
“Tough,” is how Peter O’Mahony describes the experience of being knocked out in the pool stages for two seasons in succession for the first time since the 1990s. “It was tough to watch. They’re the games you grow up wanting to play in and then even more so when you become a professional rugby player, especially for the club you’ve always wanted to play for. They’re even more so the games you want to be playing in then. To sit them out is tough.”
Even during the Six Nations this quarter-final was something O’Mahony occasionally allowed himself to contemplate. As with Toulouse, Munster are in the knockout stages for the 16th time, a record both sides hold. Not that Munster are necessarily back where they belong.
“You don’t belong in a quarter-final,” says O’Mahony. “You’ve got to work bloody hard for it, and I think that’s what we’ve done, but we’ve got another big week now to work hard. It’s knockout rugby. It’s game over if you lose, and then it’s all for nothing. These are the games you want to be involved in because you want to remember them for good reasons.”
It’s always a scalp to beat Munster in a quarter-final. I know it’s only been done once but any team that comes over here in Europe they’ll be licking their lips
O’Mahony signed off on the Six Nations with that barnstorming man-of-the-match display in the win over England.
“I was delighted to be able to come in and do a job. That’s what you’re there for. You’ve got to be prepared, ready to go to play 80 minutes and I was there to do that and I enjoyed it. I was fairly well blowing but I did enjoy it.”
Make an impact
O’Mahony only knew he was starting when Jamie Heaslip pulled up toward the end of the warm-up, but maintains: “In a strange way it’s easy, because we put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves to be ready to go on early and to make an impact.
“When you only have four or five minutes in a dressingroom to hear that you’re starting, that’s the only period you can really think or worry about it. Once the whistle goes and we kick off, you’re into it and you’re thinking about nothing other than the phases you’re in. So, it’s almost handier to be honest.”
Despite that tour de force, the Munster captain was eager to play for Munster in Zebre last weekend, and not just out of a sense of responsibility. Hamstrung for the Scottish and Italian games, he points out that prior to the England game he had played 29 minutes of rugby in seven weeks.
Having also missed a year due to the ACL injury he suffered in the World Cup pool win over France, O’Mahony admits: “I’ve still a bit to go, I’d say it’s two years before your knee is back feeling normal again. It doesn’t feel like the other one, but it’s getting there. I’m still tipping away. I’ve loads of rehab and prehab to do always. I keep on top of it and I’ll probably have that for the rest of my career.”
In any case, he and Munster will be winging it a little this week, and he stresses the need for a high quality week’s work in training, something which should be facilitated by a combination of freshness and excitement.
And why not? Two-time winners hosting four-time winners.
Save for one pool match in November 1996 when Munster were thrashed 60-19 in Toulouse, as befits their status as two Euro heavyweights, their subsequent four clashes have all been in the knockout stages.
Second European Cup
Munster famously won a semi-final in Bordeaux in 2000, before Toulouse beat them at the same stage three years later in Toulouse. Munster won their second European Cup by overcoming Toulouse in the 2008 final in Europe, and on the French club’s only previous visit to Thomond Park in the quarter-finals three seasons ago, an inspired Munster won 47-22, their sixth win of seven home quarter-finals.
“Yeah, it’s always massive. History-wise, there’s a huge amount of success between the two clubs. Two very proud clubs coming together and it’s always a great occasion. It’s always physical and almost violent, and I don’t think we’re going to expect anything else on Saturday.
“I don’t think they’re coming over here having anything to fear. It’s always a scalp to beat Munster in a quarter-final. I know it’s only been done once but any team that comes over here in Europe they’ll be licking their lips and especially with a team like them, with their experience and quality.”
That win over Toulouse three seasons ago was also a “bittersweet” occasion for O’Mahony given he dislocated his shoulder early on. And it’s one which he feels carries no relevance given changed coaching tickets and squads.
“Rugby has moved on. A few weeks is a long time, as you can see over the last few weeks, never mind three years. From the group’s point of view, we’re really looking forward to it. It’s the quarter-final, it’s back at home at Thomond Park and we haven’t had one here for a long time. The support we get is obviously well-documented and it’s nice to have one at home.”
Only if they win mind, for Munster have won 11 of their previous 15 quarter-finals. Now the bar has been raised again. That’s the way of it, especially in Munster.