AUCKLAND (Reuters) - But for Jamie Heaslip succumbing to a hamstring strain just before Ireland’s Six Nations clash with England in March, there is a good chance Peter O‘Mahony would not be on the British and Irish Lions tour at all.
On Saturday, though, the blindside flanker will not only line up in the back row for the first of three tests against New Zealand, but lead the side out to face the All Blacks at Eden Park as captain.
O‘Mahony has captained every side he has represented going back to his schooldays but getting to the point where he could follow in the footsteps of fellow Munsterman Paul O‘Connell marks a remarkable resurgence for the 27-year-old.
Injured in the same 2015 World Cup match against France that ended O‘Connell’s career, O‘Mahony’s had been restricted to one start in 18 months before Heaslip’s hamstring gave him his chance to face England in Dublin.
A rip-roaring Man of the Match performance helped Ireland destroy England’s hopes of a grand slam and a world record winning streak with a 13-9 victory and pushed O‘Mahony into firm contention for a Lions spot.
Former England centre Will Greenwood was responsible for the most famous quote about O‘Mahony when he said that faced with the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the flanker would charge at them.
That fearlessness has typified his play on the tour of New Zealand, where he also skippered the side to an impressive 32-10 victory over the Maori All Blacks as tour captain Sam Warburton struggled to get back to top form after injury.
The sole first-time tourist in a back row of openside Sean O‘Brien and number eight Taulupe Faletau, O‘Mahony has quietly gone about his business in the parts of the rugby pitch where dark arts are traditionally practised.
“Peter has done a good job and he is chuffed about it. He’s lucky that he’s got a lot of experience around him,” Gatland said on Thursday when announcing his team.
“It’s a reward for how the back row has gone.”
As befitting a man who leads by example rather than exhortation, O‘Mahony spoke quickly of the honour of captaining the side before turning to the task of becoming the first side to beat the All Blacks at Eden Park in 23 years.
”Now it’s on to the job,“ he told reporters. ”It’s a huge task obviously given the calibre of player New Zealand have, their record at Eden Park is impressive.
”But it’s going to be a different animal at the weekend, there are going to be 20,000 odd Lions fans there.
“To be involved in a game of this magnitude is where all these players who have been picked want to be, challenging against the best in the world.”
Editing by John O'Brien