Will The Real Peter O’Mahony Please Stand Up (And Fight)

It’s getting close to crunch time for O’Mahony if he wants to be Ireland’s next captain.

As the first half of the current World Cup cycle draws to a close, attention is increasingly shifting away from the here and now, and towards Japan 2019. This has been clear in Schmidt’s selection policy this November, with the likes of Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Kieran Treadwell, Chris Farrell, Darren Sweetnam and Adam Byrne not only getting game time, but starting test matches.

The obvious emphasis on development begs the question: who is going to lead these young players in Japan? Most people assume that it won’t be Rory Best. BBC reported in early November that “Schmidt told him during the summer that he would remain skipper during the autumn Tests and the Six Nations.” The obvious unspoken implication is that he is unlikely to continue as captain thereafter.

A natural born leader

So who will replace him? For over five years now, the prince of Irish rugby has been Peter O’Mahony. The Munster man has captained almost every side he’s played for, from Cork Con under-12s right through to Pres Cork’s senior cup team and the Irish under-age teams. In 2012 Gerry Thornley described him as “a natural born leader in red and in green.”

He assumed the Munster captaincy a year later and many assumed that the Ireland armband would follow after O’Connell’s retirement in 2015. But Schmidt apparently judged that the then-26 year old wasn’t quite ready, and, in an effort to provide continuity from Ireland’s ‘golden generation’, gave the captaincy to Rory Best, one of the last remaining squad members to have played a role in the 2009 Grand Slam.

Now the Munster captain is 28, and for many he is the nailed-on successor to Best. But there’s a problem: he hasn’t secured his place in the team yet.

O’Mahony is unlucky to play in the most competitive position in Irish rugby. The number of international quality backrows beggars belief: CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan, Sean Reidy, Tommy O’Donnell, Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock… the list goes on and on.

Is he good enough?

O’Mahony is hugely popular with fans, and many would say that he is a cut above the vast majority of these contenders. But do his performances back that up?

Last year he was absent for Ireland’s victories over South Africa and New Zealand. He came off the bench late against Australia, and his most notable contribution was a reckless side-entry in the closing minutes that could have cost Ireland the match if the referee had seen it.

This year he got a big break in the warm-up before the final Six Nations game. Jamie Heaslip’s back injury propelled him into the starting line-up, and he grabbed his chance with both hands, causing havoc in the English line-out and topping the tackle count as Ireland ended Eddie Jones’ winning streak.

That man of the match performance led to the honour of leading the Lions out against the Kiwis for the first test this summer. But after a mixed performance and a loss for the tourists O’Mahony was rested entirely for the victorious second and drawn third tests.

Two weeks ago, O’Mahony was handed another big chance to prove himself at the highest level. But against a poor South African side he failed to assert himself and was substituted early in the second half. His replacement, Rhys Ruddock, noticeably upped the ante, winning a vital turnover and scoring a try with an impressive display of footwork and power.

The truth is that, apart from that England game, O’Mahony has played little to no part in the big victories by Ireland or the Lions in the past 18 months.

By contrast, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander are virtually un-droppable given their performances for the Lions and against South Africa. Ruddock and Conan were two of the few players to impress in the Fiji game last week, heaping further pressure on O’Mahony’s place.

Josh van der Flier excelled on the biggest of all stages against the All Blacks last year. And Dan Leavy, who has been unlucky not to feature this month through injury, appears to be a major long-term prospect for the Irish backrow. Tony Ward is a particular fan, describing him as ‘a young Richie McCaw’ and ‘destined for the very top’.

Best of the rest?

If, given this intensity of competition, O’Mahony is unable to secure his place in the team, who else might Schmidt turn to steer the ship towards Japan?

Conor Murray and Tadgh Furlong are probably Ireland’s best individual players, but neither are natural leaders in the mould of O’Mahony or O’Connell.

Johnny Sexton is Ireland’s on-field general and the most similar to the Munster men in his intensity. But the worry with Sexton is that he may be too intense: he struggles to hold his tongue and isn’t the most diplomatic in dealing with referees.

Sean O’Brien seems to have played a big leadership role for the Lions, and could yet be the dark horse candidate. But he also plays in that ultra-competitive backrow, has had his injury issues, and isn’t guaranteed to be in the team in 2019.

Finally, Schmidt could stick with Best, who has done a fine job as captain. But he will be 37 by the time the World Cup starts, and only John Hayes has been capped for Ireland at that age.

Crunch time

Schmidt knows that there are few outstanding candidates for the captaincy. He knows all about O’Mahony’s leadership credentials, and he knows that he has to be given the chance to prove himself. So tomorrow, despite the fact that Ruddock and Conan have out-performed O’Mahony this series, he gets another of those chances.

But reputation alone will not grant the Munster man many more chances. If he wants to be Ireland’s next captain, tomorrow he needs to return to the commanding heights of that England game. It’s time for the real Peter O’Mahony to stand up. And fight.

Conor Quinn

Conor Quinn

Conor is an Irish rugby fan and writer based in London.
Conor Quinn