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Why Ireland need to persuade Peter O'Mahony to keep playing

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Wednesday Mar 20, 2024

Munster and Ireland legend Peter O’Mahony has been one of the preeminent names in Irish Rugby over the past fifteen years.

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A true warrior in every sense of the word, O’Mahony is a throwback to a bygone era of niggly, relentless and demanding backrows.

Underrated as an athlete by those outside the camp, the 34-year-old has utilised every bit of his potential in a similar vein to the likes of Richie McCaw, Richard Hill and other iconic backrows with off-the-charts work ethic.

Yet, for all of his memorable try-saving tackles, line-out steals, and breakdown poaches, it is O’Mahony’s leadership that sets him apart.

Captaining Munster for the first time in 2011, just a year into his senior career with the province, the former Presentation Brothers College pupil was earmarked from early on as a natural leader.

Bearing in mind that the Munster squad of that time remained full of players who won two Heineken Cups and been integral in Ireland’s 2009 Six Nations Grand Slam and one gets a full picture of the authority O’Mahony commanded even then.

Fast forward to 2024, in the wake of guiding his team to a second successive Six Nations title, rumours have swirled, and discussions have been had about his future.

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Speaking at the post match press conference, O’Mahony directly addressed his future by saying, “We’ll see. I don’t know. I need to go talk to my wife and family and have a think about it. I won’t be making any decisions over the next few days, but next week, we’ll have to have a chat.

“I’m still loving it. This part of it is the best feeling in the world, and that’s the part you chase.

“You’ve to have a proper chat and be realistic and if it was my last one, it wasn’t a bad one to go out on. You can hang the jersey in a good place if it was. I’ll have that chat next week.”

Of course, given his service to both province and country, nobody has the right to pressure him either way as he weighs up his options with his family.

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On the field of play, people could and have made a valid argument that perhaps it is time to add new blood to the Irish backrow in his place, namely the undeniably Ryan Baird.

However, whilst there is no argument to be made that based purely on physical attributes the 24-year-old Baird is the better athlete of the two. Take into account the quantum leaps Baird has taken this season and it would seem a foregone conclusion that he is Ireland’s next blindside flanker.

Does this elevation and the competition behind Baird then mean that O’Mahony does not feel fit for purpose anymore? In simple terms, no.

Should Baird indeed take the step up to becoming a regular starter for Ireland, the most natural choice would be to hand the captaincy to the immovable force that is Caelen Doris. Given the Mayo man has now had a test of the captain’s armband in this year’s Championship, it would appear as though he is the man earmarked by Andy Farrell to take over.

This would then leave a situation whereby O’Mahony is likely staring down a bench position, given Josh van der Flier remains Ireland’s clear choice in the number seven shirt. In this instance, the argument for an explosive ball player in Baird’s mould to occupy the all-important ‘impact sub’ role is very much in play.

In this department, Ireland are not short of options with Leinster’s Scott Penny, Will Connors, Munster’s Gavin Coombes, John Hodnett, Alex Kendellen, Thomas Ahern, Connacht’s Cian Prendergast and Ulster’s Nick Timoney seemingly the key contenders. Behind this group of eight are a bunch of intriguing youngsters who are fresh off dominating the U20 game with Munster’s Rudhan Quinn and Brian Gleeson leading the charge.

With such an abundance of talent within the four provinces, one could understand that O’Mahony may fancy a new challenge further afield to close out his career.

For both Munster and Ireland, they should do everything in their power to persuade otherwise.

Why? Do I hear you ask? While there is no doubt that on a purely physical level, the upside of these players is substantial, the experience and more crucial attitude of O’Mahony is not abundantly evident in any other player in the Irish squad.

This is no slight or cheap shot at any Irish player, with every one of the current squad bringing their own unique skill set to the squad. But when the chips have been down over the past fifteen years, few players, safe for perhaps Paul O’Connell or Sean O’Brien, have stood up more than O’Mahony.

One only needs to look at the World Champions South Africa as an example of how crucial experience is when it comes to what is ultimately this Irish team’s ambition to win a World Cup.

In the 2023 final, the Springboks played two 37-year-olds in Deon Fourie and Duane Vermeulen for the bulk of their ultra-tight final one point win over the All Blacks.

Were either player the best available option in their position based purely on physical attributes? No. In fact Fourie likely wasn’t the second-best backrow or hooker (where he replaced Bongi Mbonambi) whilst Vermeulen had been firmly displaced by Jasper Wiese in the eight shirt. Like Ireland, the Springboks are blessed with electric talent across the backrow, but instead, Rassie Erasmus opted to bring the two veterans. One would suspect this decision was made with this exact scenario in mind: when the chips were down and the pressure came on, the duo stood firm.

When you write it out, it becomes ever clearer that in rugby, like any other career, experience is what counts in the big moments. Take for example the case of a heart surgeon, would you feel more secure knowing a 50-year-old surgeon who has completed 100s of these procedures was handling your procedure? Or would you rather the flashier, freshly trained surgeon with all of the latest training took control?

Focusing back on the O’Mahony of it all, the 34-year-old could not be in a better set-up to elongate his career than his good pal Johnny Sexton.

Irish Rugby’s world class set-up ensures their players are managed to within a minute throughout the season with Andy Farrell clearly having a hand in this area. Thus, it is highly reasonable to believe that both Munster and Ireland could manage the veteran through to the 2027 tournament.

Without needing to name him as the official captain, the impact O’Mahony would have on both the leaders both in Munster and Ireland would be off the charts.

Off the pitch, this flexibility could and should be extended to ensure that his family life is less affected than it would inevitably have been throughout his career. This could be done by him missing early portions of the domestic season in a similar fashion to Sexton, which is then utilised throughout the business at the end of the club season.

On the international front, playing him in the key Six Nations and November fixtures whilst resting him for the summer tours would make sense on several fronts. Firstly the player welfare element of managing him through season and secondly affording the next generation the game time they need.

Should O’Mahony wish to experience another culture, then a season in Japan’s more forgiving Top League would not only scratch that itch but make sense financially for both the player and those funding his contract in Ireland.

This reduced workload would not only ensure he is primed to perform when it is needed but will likely keep the unwavering pursuit for success that has driven him to a legendary figure burning within.

 

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