Peter O’Mahony wasn’t even meant to be on this Lions tour.
After battling injury, the Munsterman was a fringe player for Ireland in the Six Nations, and before the showdown with England in Dublin at the end of March, few would have expected him to be in Warren Gatland’s thoughts.
But Jamie Heaslip pulled out through injury minutes before kick-off, O’Mahony started and had a blinder, catapulting himself onto the plane to New Zealand.
Now, in the ultimate sporting ‘sliding doors’ moment, .
Stephen Ferris – a former Ireland team-mate – says there is only one player who hates losing as much as the legendary Irish lock Paul O’Connell; that man is O’Mahony.
A bit of a throwback to the old school, O’Mahony is a lead-by-example captain – typical of Munster – softy spoken but intense, demanding to the point of intimidating according to the Thomond Park folk that know him best.
“He’s confrontational, he’s aggressive, he walks a fine line between intimidating other players at training, and making people raise their standards,” his coach at Munster Jerry Flannery told BBC 5 live.
“He had a huge performance against England and I think he’s just gained momentum as the tour’s gone on.
“This is a culmination of all the hard work he’s put in during his career. It’s a proud day for him, his family and for us at Munster. We’re delighted. It’s a huge honour.”
‘The most perfect nuisance’
Gatland himself has cited the “Munster mongrel” in O’Mahony – and it’s that uncompromising approach that will be needed in the Eden Park cauldron.
“The Munstermen have natural motivation skills, they are incredibly focused and incredibly passionate,” says three-time Lions tourist Martyn Williams.
“The greatest captain I played under was Paul O’Connell – and obviously Peter O’Mahony has grown up watching him.
“What better role model to have than Paul O’Connell? O’Mahony comes across as that sort of player.
“He’s very intense, very emotional – the complete opposite of someone like Sam Warburton, who doesn’t show much emotion – but O’Mahony seems to have grown as the emotional leader of the tour and has done a fantastic job when he’s been captain.”
Another proud man of Limerick, Keith Wood, also paints a picture of a ‘doer’, not a talker, someone who you would want alongside you in the rugby trenches.
“He’s the most perfect nuisance,” Wood said.
“You just want him on the field, you want him in the jersey. He’ll annoy everybody.”
Flannery adds: “Anyone can tell from looking at him he’s a confrontational character when he plays on the field.
“That’s what he built his game around, he’s pretty old school in his approach to rugby and that’s refreshing.
“He’s always been the most mature guy in the group coming through age-group rugby, so he’s always come through as a captain.
“He’s probably old before his years.”
Dealing with Foley’s death
O’Mahony has had to grow up fast: a Munster debut at 20, he was an Ireland international two years later.
But events of this season have tested his character in very different ways.
On a Sunday morning in October, before a European Cup match in Paris against Racing 92, news emerged of the tragic death of Munster head coach Anthony Foley, a hero of Shannon, Limerick, Munster and Ireland; and therefore, a hero of O’Mahony’s as well.
“Every team I supported, he was in,” reflected an emotional O’Mahony back in October.
And speaking on Thursday after being handed the Lions captaincy, the current Munster skipper was visibly emotional when asked about the impact Foley’s death has had on him as a person, and as a leader.
“You would hope he would be proud,” O’Mahony reflected.
“It’s been a difficult season, but you try and take as many positives out of it as you can.
“It’s Lions against the All Blacks and you have got to use everything you have had over your entire rugby career and try and use it all for Saturday.”
‘Play what you do and what you know’
Foley – a “rugby man”, according to O’Mahony – would have had some simple words of advice before games like these.
“He would have told us all ‘play your game, play what you do and what you know’,” O’Mahony added.
“He’d have said there’s a reason there’s 45 players here now who have been selected.
“You’ve been picked for a reason, so if you go out and play as well as you can, no-one’s going to fault you for that.”
It’s the sort of advice O’Mahony may well be passing on to his own men come Saturday evening.