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FEATURE The fire that drove Peter O'Mahony to become a Test centurion

The fire that drove Peter O'Mahony to become a Test centurion
8 months ago

There is a story Donncha O’Callaghan tells about a young Peter O’Mahony that goes straight to the core. The year was 2009, a time when Munster still had a swagger to their step and a dream in their head.

“Well Pete, boy,” O’Callaghan bellowed, with the kind of familiarity that came from a decade knowing one another, O’Mahony once being a ball boy at Cork Con, O’Callaghan’s club.

“We’re doing a few extras (sprints). You (academy) lads want to take us on or what?”

O’Mahony didn’t blink.

“Lads to the line, now.”

He spoke. The rest of the academy squad followed.

“You could tell they respected him,” O’Callaghan remembers, and you can understand why, O’Mahony captaining every team he has ever played for.

The sprints ensued, and typical of that Munster era, were competitive, intense, edgy.

Ten minutes later, the academy contingent finally made their way back to the dressing room.

All bar one: O’Mahony.

“Donncha, could I have a word, please?” he asked.

O’Callaghan obliged and as soon as he saw those piercing eyes glare back at him, he realised he was in a spot of bother. “We’re following a strict training programme,” O’Mahony said, “and because of our age, the fact we are still growing, we have been told to ease up on certain days. Don’t put me in a position like that again.”

At the time O’Callaghan was a two-times Lions tourist, grand slam winner and veteran of two World Cups. O’Mahony was 19.

And he was on his way.

Peter O'Mahony
Even as a young man, Peter O’Mahony had a presence and commanded the respect of his team-mates (Photo OLLY GREENWOOD/ Getty Images)

In Paris on Saturday he’ll be one step closer to the finishing line, the latest international centurion, when you include that opening Test of the 2017 Lions tour as well as the 98 Ireland caps.

You think you know him, don’t you?

You see the glare he reserves for opposing hardmen, the refusal to ever step back, the emotion he plays with and you have made your mind up right away. In Munster he is revered for repeatedly staying around the place when he could have gone, industry sources estimating he would be E500,000 better off if he’d taken the offers being thrown at him when his contract was up for renewal in 2017.

Yet there is a reason he has stayed and it comes back to what he said in a post-match interview with former Ireland prop, Reggie Corrigan, following a derby defeat to Leinster.

Corrigan, at the time, was working as a sideline reporter with the Irish language channel, TG4, and purposely asked OMahony whether his Munster team had lacked intensity en route to a 23-17 defeat.

“Myself – I’m a very proud Munster man and Irishman and that is at the core of everything. Everything is based around work-rate and want to win and for someone to question that, I’d take great offence at it.”

The ex-Leinster man got the famous Cork glare and 40 minutes later, at the official press conference, OMahony had yet to mellow.

“It was a silly question, essentially calling myself and my team-mates out and questioning do we want it enough,” OMahony said of the pitch-side interview.

“Myself – I’m a very proud Munster man and Irishman and that is at the core of everything. Everything is based around work-rate and want to win and for someone to question that, I’d take great offence at it.”

No one has queried him on that issue since, not when you consider what he went through, a horrific career-threatening injury that took a year to recover from, two lengthy spells on the bench with Ireland, once under Joe Schmidt in 2017, another under Andy Farrell in 2022.

And then there was his 12 years in purgatory, OMahony starting off with Munster just as their golden generation was finishing up. His breakthrough came the season Munster won the 2011 Magners League but he didn’t make the match-day squad for the final.
Peter O'Mahony
As he approaches his 100th international cap, O’Mahony is respected throughout the rugby world (Richard Heathcote – Getty Images)

Then all of a sudden, from being lords of the manner, they were squatting next to noisy neighbours, rugby’s version of Nick Carraway, jealously observing the parties next door at Gatsby’s. As the noughties ended and the 2010s began, Leinster got good, Munster got worse.

And that was how it has been, right through his career … until this season, when they sprung a surprise against their Irish rivals in the URC semis before winning the final.

It wouldn’t have happened without their skipper because he stayed with them through the dark hours, when the team transitioned from old to young, from world leaders to makeweights.

And if we wonder why he hung around, as money offers came in from France and England, then we have to go back to where it all started.

Dad John is a Con man. It’s in the blood.

He bought a 19th century property in Blackrock, where he brings a creativity and intensity to his gardening, regularly showing off his work on Instagram, relishing the balance that Cork provides, ‘a buzz but not the craziness of Dublin’.

So is Cork. So is Ireland.

When Munster relocated to the University of Limerick, a 90-minute drive away, O’Mahony chose to commute rather than sell up and move home.

You can see why. He bought a 19th century property in Blackrock, where he brings a creativity and intensity to his gardening, regularly showing off his work on Instagram, relishing the balance that Cork provides, ‘a buzz but not the craziness of Dublin’.

Better again, it allows him to disappear to the rugged west of the county, where he takes his three dogs, two Labradors and a Springer Spaniel. Minding them helps to take his mind off rugby.

Peter O'Mahony
O’Mahony has tasted disappointment in World Cups and that drives him as they search for success in France (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

As a kid he was always an outdoors boy, a kayaker as a youth, holidaying in west Cork at a time when there was no internet or even a TV. As a three-year-old he was dreaming of this, playing for Ireland in a World Cup, throwing a ball around with dad John in the back garden, watching his old man play for Con, the subs minding him when his dad was carted off the pitch one day to get his cartilage cleaned out, following an injury.

“I just loved being around the club,” he’d later say.

The smells. The sounds. The atmosphere.

It was him.

He first played a game of rugby as a five-year-old – for Con’s Under 8s.

Now and then he’d take a bang and he’d cry. The old fella would say, ‘get back in there kid’. And that was it. After a few seasons, he got used to the pain, and by the time they were playing Under 12 rugby, he was touring Wales and France, and loving the demands of twice weekly training sessions, as he evolved from a wing, to centre, even as a No.10 for a year and then finally a flanker.

You don’t want him angry. As an opponent he was a nightmare, as a teammate the best.”

Rory Best

He could play. Ireland spotted that. He captained their Under 20s. They liked his athleticism and intelligence, his ability to decode an opposition line-out. Most of all they liked him, this smart, emotionally intelligent, loyal, empathetic fella who’d turn into a dog when he crossed the line and heard the first whistle blow.

As time passed, Munster and Ireland fans grew to love him, the rest to hate him. He simultaneously became Peter the Great and Peter the Grate.

“I relied heavily on him when I was Ireland captain,” wrote Rory Best in his autobiography. “He was a natural leader, a strong character, he kept me honest.”

Best and Ulster figured him out. Wind him up and they’d pay the price. “You don’t want him angry,” Best said. So they overdid the charm on match days, killing him with kindness. “As an opponent he was a nightmare, as a teammate the best,” said Best.

And that is what they became from 2012 to 2019, when Best retired.

Rory Best
Rory Best says O’Mahony was the best team-mate but a nightmare to play against (Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images)

They had great days together, a 2018 win over the All Blacks, when O’Mahony had the game of his life, after winning a grand slam that year.

That year he won his 50th cap, Saturday will be his 100th.

So, let’s go back to the day he got his first. This is what he said then.

“It is a privilege. The best job in the world. There is no better privilege than putting on the green jersey.”

In 69 of those 98 Ireland games, he was ended up on the winning side, another defeat coming in cap No.99 for the Lions. Gatland ditched him after that, denting his confidence to an extent. Yet he bounced back. And that has been the story of Peter O’Mahony.

The biggest test he faced in his career was in 2016, the year Anthony Foley passed away suddenly. That Munster dressing room was in danger of imploding. And O’Mahony kept it together.

That knee injury in 2015? Those semi-final and final losses for Munster? The benching by Schmidt and then Farrell? He coped.

And why?

Because that’s who he is. The best of Ireland, he’s the best of us, rugged, determined, a fighter for his dreams, someone who never gives up.

The biggest test he faced in his career was in 2016, the year Anthony Foley passed away suddenly.

That Munster dressing room was in danger of imploding.

And O’Mahony kept it together.

The day after Foley’s funeral, they played Glasgow, an emotive occasion when Keith Earls was sent off for a tip tackle. In his autobiography, Earls wrote about how Munster felt the Glasgow players were milking the moment.

Peter O'Mahony
O’Mahony is 33 and like his fellow veterans, knows this is his last World Cup (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

At one stage the referee pulled the two captains together, the ref mic recording the conversation.

“They are over emotional,” Glasgow’s Jonny Gray opined.

O’Mahony instantly pushed Gray backwards.

“Don’t fucking tell us what emotions we should have,” he said.

Those eyes glared at the Scottishman.

This was not a day to take a backward step. Nor will Saturday be. When the Springboks appear in the Paris night, the Munster centurion is ready to stand up and fight.

Comments

5 Comments
A
Andrew 268 days ago

As a Rugby fan, I have great respect for him.
His attitude reminds me of Richard Hill: Never back down and when in doubt push forward.
As an England fan, I hate him haha
As a Lions fan, I love him.
As a neutral, really looking forward to Ireland v South Africa!

B
Bill 268 days ago

15 Pete’s and we win every World Cup, 6 Nations and
Heineken! My money is on
another RWC in 4 years time!

S
Sean 269 days ago

Probably up there with one of the best Irish players and definitely one of Munsters best I love him

V
Vellies 270 days ago

Most overrated player after George North and Itoje...

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