Peter O’Mahony has emerged as the shock front-runner to lead the Lions into the first Test on Saturday, as tour captain Sam Warburton is expected to miss out on a starting place.
The 27-year-old Ireland flanker was skipper for the morale-raising victory over the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua and that audition has seemingly left him in pole position to continue in the role for the series opener against New Zealand at Eden Park.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland and his assistants won’t finalise their selection plans until Wednesday, after the encounter with the Chiefs on Tuesday, but O’Mahony has certainly made a powerful impression so far. Asked if he would be comfortable with the notion of the Munster man being captain of the Test side, Andy Farrell’s response was emphatic.
Peter O’Mahony impressed in the win over the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua
O’Mahony captained the side that won and he has received rave reviews ever since
‘I’d be more than comfortable,’ said the defence coach, who knows and works with the player in the Ireland set-up. On successive weekends, O’Mahony has performed superbly in a well-balanced back row alongside Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau.
His hard-grafting exploits and leadership credentials have left him as prime candidate to take on the captaincy if Warburton is reduced to a bench role in Auckland as anticipated.
The Welsh openside has been striving to regain match sharpness after a knee injury but his progress was hampered by a calf strain.
O’Mahony was great in a well-balanced back row alongside Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau
His leadership credentials have left him as prime candidate to take on the captaincy
O’Mahony’s potential elevation to the most prestigious playing post in British and Irish rugby is all the more remarkable given the circumstances behind his selection to the touring squad in the first place.
Having returned to action late last year, following the best part of a year out with a serious knee injury, he was kept out of the Ireland line-up by CJ Stander.
Fate intervened in his favour on the day Joe Schmidt’s team won their final Six Nations game against England, who were in Dublin seeking a second consecutive Grand Slam.
Jamie Heaslip was injured in the warm-up, O’Mahony was promoted from the bench into the starting blindside place and he reduced English ambitions to dust with a commanding performance. That, in turn, earned him a Lions selection that had appeared unthinkable just weeks earlier.
Tour captain Sam Warburton is expected to miss out as the 27-year-old is given a chance
Gatland sees him as someone who can epitomise what he calls ‘Munster mongrel’; a hard, aggressive, abrasive edge, supreme commitment and fervent will to win.
‘I think sometimes that’s what you’re looking for,’ said the Kiwi, after naming him as captain against the Maori. ‘It’s not something that you can quantify. It’s a special pride; being able to dig deep and bring performances from places where people often can’t. That’s what Peter will bring.’
O’Mahony is a passionate product of his home province. He grew up playing for Cork Constitution and attended Presentation College. He has captained most teams he has ever been part of — acquiring a reputation as an instinctive leader by example.
Donncha O’Callaghan, another forward from Cork who went on to represent Ireland and captain the Lions — in a tour match in 2009 — said ahead of the Maori game: ‘Pete is not a captain this week. He is a captain every single day in everything he does. He was a leader in our Munster dressing room when he was aged 20. Some guys are different and he is one.
Warren Gatland won’t finalise his selections for Saturday’s Test until Wednesday
‘To be a Lions skipper is massive, but what matters more than anything is they lead from the front in their performance. It’s really easy to get in behind a Lions captain who is not taking a backward step and is attritional. That is Pete. Also, you don’t need shouting and roaring in the dressing-room. If anything, you need someone who can be quite calming and he has got those attributes.’
O’Mahony is very much a player of deeds over words. When Munster coach Anthony Foley — an iconic figure in the province, who he had idolised — died suddenly last season at the age of 42, the skipper wept as he tried to speak about his grief.
Growing up, he was immersed in the local rugby scene. A recent Instagram post featured a picture of O’Mahony as a ball-boy at Cork Constitution back in the era when Keith Wood, another mighty Lion, was the kingpin in those parts. On the whole, his heroes were the forwards who made Thomond Park in Limerick such a fortress, but the rugby player he has most admired is Richie McCaw. He has also studied Muhammad Ali.
If he is to be the man chosen to lead the Lions out at Eden Park on Saturday, O’Mahony will apply a simple formula.
‘Any of the good captains I’ve been around have played well consistently,’ he said. ‘It’s about leading by example and leading from the front.’