Andy Farrell decision after Peter O'Mahony yellow card went largely unnoticed
Such was Ireland's position of strength that this one passed many viewers by, at home and at Stade Velodrome.
At the championship launch, a week prior, O'Mahony had done a decent job of dead-batting talk of him considering retiring from Test rugby, Munster and IRFU contracts and how long he saw himself playing on for. Clarke had some more time to push and probe, and got some good stuff from Ireland's new captain. At one stage, Clarke came right now and asked, "Are you a stand-in, or are you more of a longer term captain?"
"I'm the captain. That's it," O'Mahony replied. "I'm the captain for the Six Nations, and very honoured to be."
Clarke was not easing off, though. He raised the point that Rory Best and Johnny Sexton had bowed out after World Cups at the respective ages of 37 and 38.
"How long can you go on for?" he then asked.
"I won't be going that long," O'Mahony confirmed, "but I've plenty more rugby in me... The day you stop learning is the day you start packing it in. That doesn't seem to be the case here so, I've plenty more in me."
All that has occurred since Ireland were eliminated from the World Cup, all the talk of the IRFU not offering a central contract for next season and Munster contract talks being put on hold. All that tied into O'Mahony's post-match comments, in Marseille, and a big decision taken by Andy Farrell during the game. It all leads to something that many of us have not considered too much - are we already well into Peter O'Mahony's last season, and last dance?
'He's had an incredible impact on me as a person, and as a rugby player'
There has been a lot of talk about the IRFU doing Peter O'Mahony wrong by not offering him a central contract for 2024/25, and even beyond. Such calls only increased in volume after he was named captain for the Six Nations.
A debate has raged over whether Andy Farrell values the Munster back-row more than the union that employs them both. It is worth pausing to consider if O'Mahony, who turns 35 in September, will play beyond this summer. Farrell has insisted he hates talk of 'four-year cycles' and building towards World Cups. It was very clear, after that World Cup heartache against New Zealand, that Farrell was not keen on a complete re-tooling of his side.
Players like O'Mahony, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Cian Healy and Conor Murray were told they were still in Farrell's thoughts. If they played on and put in the performances, they would be still in the selection mix. Asked, at that Six Nations launch, if he had tried to convince O'Mahony to play on for Ireland, Farrell said:
"I always speak to players, no matter what. To me, it's the same as anything. It's about how you're performing and how you're playing. Certainly, whether your form warrants getting selected and whether your body can do that. I think those type of decisions, as far as that's concerned, become pretty obvious if you allow what's pretty natural to happen. I didn't have to persuade Pete, no."
During his interview with Gabriel Clarke, O'Mahony said Farrell had "absolutely" extended his rugby career. "He's had an incredible impact on me as a person, and as a rugby player... he's a man you would follow."
If Farrell came to O'Mahony with the prospect of leading Ireland in the 2024 Six Nations, and in a two-Test summer tour to take on the world champion Springboks, and to see where everything lay after that, you can be sure the mutual respect the pair have for each other sealed the deal.
In Marseille, the Munster man spoke of how he would have gladly 'packed it in' on Saturday morning if he knew his Ireland team would start the Six Nations with a record-breaking win over France. Beside him, Farrell gave him a nudge and O'Mahony joked it was merely a figure of speech.
Something about the whole situation feels like the veteran is sticking around while others find their voice, and crave that leadership chance, around him.
O'Mahony does not see himself playing on until the 2027 World Cup in Australia, but he can help this team transition over the next season (or two), and leave them in good shape to kick on. The immediate goals of Six Nations and South Africa are there. Farrell would, understandably, love to have O'Mahony in-situ while he takes his Lions sabbatical [December 2024 until August 2025] but that probably feels an age away.
As for the man that would replace him as Ireland captain? I think we got our answer on Friday night.
Peter O'Mahony and the man that could replace him as captain
Friday night, against France, was the 11th time Peter O'Mahony has captained Ireland but the first time he had the honour in a full-time capacity. For that game, an Ireland teammate ended up as captain for 28 minutes.
O'Mahony was sin-binned after an overly long TMO check that eventually led to a try being awarded to France's Paul Gabrillagues. From the 52nd minute on, Caelan Doris assumed the captaincy. Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong, Bundee Aki and Dan Sheehan - four men with captaincy experience - were all on the pitch as O'Mahony jogged to the sideline, but Doris was the player entrusted with making the big on-field calls.
On 60 minutes, with Ireland just a score ahead, Doris made the bold choice of kicking for touch when Jack Crowley had the option of a relatively simple kick at goal. His call was rewarded when Joe McCarthy claimed the lineout, after Crowley kicked for touch, and Dan Sheehan crashed over for a try. When Crowley split the sticks with the resulting conversion that was it for France.
Doris, in his first time taking the captaincy, assumed the role without missing a beat. It seemed so natural that hardly anyone passed a remark. This is a player that last captained Ireland at U18s level and has only captained Leinster once before, a New Year's Day defeat to Ulster at The RDS, last month.
When we spoke with the Mayo native, in December, he said captaining Ireland would be a huge honour but 'it isn't one of my goals, for this season anyway'. He added:
"It's a massive one to captain a team. I sort of put a bit of pressure on myself to do a good job. In some ways, as much as it's an honour, it can be less enjoyable at times. It's definitely more work, which is more rewarding at times too.
"I've been enjoying trying to do it this season a little bit more, without the title. After that experience in 2018 [as captain of Leinster and Ireland U18s], I wasn't as forthright and not at the forefront, in terms of leading. I'm trying to develop that again over the last number of seasons."
Doris and Hugo Keenan were added to Ireland's leadership group, last season, with an eye firmly on the future. With Johnny Sexton retired, Dan Sheehan is also being looked upon as someone to take on a greater stake in how this team operates.
In terms of frontrunners, though, Caelan Doris is ahead of the rest. Keep an eye on the rest of the Six Nations team selections - do not be surprised if we get Doris as captain for one of the next four games.
O'Mahony will continue to put off talk of the future, and contract offers, for as long as possible and focus on the honour afforded him by Farrell. Let's enjoy this guy while we still have him around.
WILL CONNORS & LINDSAY PEAT ON HOUSE OF RUGBY
*Join SportsJOE’s WhatsApp community for first access to news, sports updates, and quizzes. Click on this link to receive news and the latest sports headlines directly to your phone. You can leave the group at any time.
- Peter O'Mahony comments on playing on for Ireland were so pure
- "That day will stay with me, all my life" - Ronan O'Gara in tears during touching Champions Cup documentary
- Three Ireland stars included as Top 20 players in world rugby
- 'It's pretty fake if you think everything is going to be rosy' - ROG on Johnny Sexton rivalry
- "An unbelievable find" - Brian Gleeson and five other Ireland prospects to watch in the URC