Peter O'Mahony on the Paul O'Connell conversations that shaped his captaincy
For the past four months, rugby has taken a back seat and you get the sense that it is no bad thing.
From the age of 10, big things were expected of Peter O'Mahony. Living with expectations is like living with sunrise and sunset. It wouldn't be his life if it was not there.
In the past few weeks, I have been fortunate enough to speak with some up-and-coming Irish rugby stars. I've asked the likes of Scott Penny, Craig Casey, Beibhinn Parsons, Ryan Baird and Fineen Wycherley about their senior debuts and all glow as they speak of the excitement, the nerves, family members being in attendance and that first involvement. Their eyes glow.
Peter O'Mahony made his senior Munster debut on January 2, 2010 against Ulster. Asked what he remembers about the PRO12 game, which Munster lost up in Belfast, he says:
"Nerves, more than anything. Nerves all week. I remember coming on for Quinny (Alan Quinlan) and it was stressful. Stressful times. It doesn't get any more stressful, that, I'll be honest with you. That and your first cap for Ireland.
"They're great to get them done but it's torture, with the expectation you put on yourself, and that's put on yourself from teammates and that kind of thing. Look, to be honest, it's more yourself than anything. Looking back, they're great memories to have, but lots of stress involved."
O'Mahony - speaking to SportsJOE as part of the GreenAware #DoBitsHelpLots campaign - was a key player and captain in every side he played for, all the way up through his rugby career. Growing up just around the corner from Cork Constitution's home ground, O'Mahony had his sights set on playing rugby from an early age.
He was earmarked as a future Munster captain from as early as 16 and former academy coach Ian Costello once told me the back-row 'stood out like a beacon'. O'Mahony captained all of Munster's underage sides and led their 'A' side to the British & Irish Cup in 2012. Before that, though, O'Mahony had already led the senior side.
A week before he turned 22, O'Mahony captained a Munster side containing the likes of Doug Howlett, Peter Stringer, Marcus Horan, Billy Holland and Mick O'Driscoll against Dragons. It was an honour - of course it was - but there was that stress again.
"I suppose I had captained a lot of the teams before that," he says.
"It was a different animal, obviously, going to the senior Munster team but there would have been a lot of times when I would have spoken to Paulie. Even before I would have played for Munster, he would have been on to me about this and that. And, at the time, I probably didn’t realise that he was doing his little shaping of me, with regard to me coming on. That definitely stood to me.
"I wouldn’t say I was never fazed in training. I was completely taken aback with my first few sessions and seasons with Munster. Training with guys that I would have had posters of on my wall at home, a few years previous, and all of a sudden I’m in the middle of training sessions and matches with these. So at the time, do you know what I mean, I probably took it for granted a little. I would have done a lot of work on it, but it probably would have felt natural but, at the same time, very unnatural."
It is interesting to note O'Mahony saying how O'Connell sought him out for conversations and one-to-one sessions even before he was part of the senior squad. That investment in Munster is something that Conor Murray himself spoke about in the past. He recalled that, during his short stint at Young Munster, how O'Connell knew all about the top prospects at the club and came in on a few occasions to give team-talks.
Going back to that Dragons game, and the others that O'Mahony led Munster for during that 2011/12 season, O'Mahony says he took confidence from the faith that so many of his coaches and peers had in him.
"Strings would have had 80 caps for Ireland, by then, maybe more. Marcus, something similar. But it probably said to me what they thought of me. But, again, that comes back to putting pressure on yourself then. If they think that of me and they’re giving me that responsibility, they probably expect something in return, which is a performance.
"You know, that’s the pressure you put on yourself, and then more and more pressure builds. You know, I’ve got these guys around me and these guys have played and won European Cups. They’ve won Six Nations. They’ve captained Lions teams, these guys expect me to be one of the best today – d’ya know what I mean – if they’re putting me in this position, and that brings out the best in you, I think. And they were good times as well."
O'Mahony took over the Munster captaincy on a permanent basis from Doug Howlett in 2013 and has since led Ireland and, in 2017, the British & Irish Lions. Stress and expectations are present in every game he plays, but add in captaincy and some weeks can be taut. How, then, has he come to cope with the stress over the years?
"To a small degree, I've learned to live with it. But the expectation is massive. In Ireland now, we expect each of our provinces to win every week and we expect our country to win every game. And the players expect that as well. So losing is not taken well by anyone and poor performances resulting in losses are not acceptable any more.
"Kids are growing up seeing Leinster winning, seeing Ireland winning. It creates an expectation. Even the younger guys coming through now, they expect us to win. They don't expect us to lose. So that pressure is built from all these different angles.
"It's hard to deal with all that pressure and I'd never say I've come up with a solution where I don't get stressed. I get stressed every week about performing and winning."
As someone who expects as much out of himself as he does his province and country, O'Mahony says he feels physically and mentally refreshed after the lockdown period.
He is back training two weeks with Munster now and jokes about how many of his younger teammates have returned to the fold looking bulked up like 'small monsters'. It is in the new generation of Munster stars that the 30-year-old sees so much potential.
"There’s guys coming out [of Cork] who are super rugby players… guys like Fineen Wycherley. Liam Coombes, Gav Coombes, both West Cork as well. Shane Daly, these kind of people. Shane played a lot of rugby for us last year and has been class… Diarmuid Barron is a hooker who’s come through to us, who is leading standards as well. And there's lots of guys that I haven't named there that are sticking their hands up, as well, from an academy point of view and development. Guys coming into senior contracts, like Alex McHenry. These guys are going to make a difference."
"It’s great," he continues. "You know, Cork prides itself hugely on its sportspeople, it’s teams, football and hurling teams, soccer teams, are competitive and have an incredible history. And you look at the people we’ve produced in West Cork recently. Bandon, Bantry, there’s an incredible amount of guys have come through in the last 12 months, 18 months, two years, and all from West Cork, you know what I mean? So they’ve got a great grounding and got great people, down there, looking after them.
"They’ve an incredible work ethic, which is sometimes taken for granted when you come in. These guys are pushing standards and pushing levels, as young men. It’s great to see. It’s great to see, obviously, from a selfish point of view – coming from Cork – because I’m a very proud Corkman.
"But it’s so important from a Munster point of view, and an Irish point of view, to have players coming into academies that have grown up in the local area that understand the club and who, essentially, will go on to play international rugby, it’s what your academy needs to be producing. There’s certainly calibres of players coming out of our academies at the moment who, I have no doubt, will play international rugby."
For the record, O'Mahony speaks of the young players coming through for Munster from Limerick and Tipperary too, but the eyes light up when he lists off the province's new Cork contingent.
The Cork cavalry is coming.
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