Since his very first appearance for the national team back in 2012, Peter O’Mahony has had a battle on his hands to gain selection in Ireland’s ultra-competitive back row.
Following a string of impressive performances for Munster, the Cork native made his international debut in February of that year during the closing stages of a convincing 42-10 triumph over Italy at the Aviva Stadium.
On that occasion, Ireland’s starting back row consisted of Leinster duo Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip along with Ulster’s Stephen Ferris. By the end of the year, O’Mahony had showcased his versatility by featuring in all three positions at the back of the scrum.
He subsequently went on to become a regular in the Ireland side, starting 14 out of 15 games in the Six Nations title-winning campaigns of 2014, 2015 and 2018.
However, he had to be content with a place on the bench last Saturday as Caelan Doris, debutant Will Connors and his Munster team-mate CJ Stander were chosen to lead Ireland back into Guinness Six Nations action – also against the Italians.
While O’Mahony admits it will not be easy to reclaim a starting spot for this Saturday night’s crunch final round showdown with France, this is something he is fully accustomed to at this point.
Speaking today at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre, he said: “You’ve a battle on your hands every week. I’ve felt 67 or 68 battles every week I’ve played for Ireland. I’ve worked as hard as I physically could to get a jersey, whether it was on the bench or whether it was starting.
There’s nothing taken for granted. There’s nothing given in these circles. When I first started, you look at the back row that was there. Every single weekend you look at the back rows that I was involved with, now the back row at the moment.
“It has never been anything other than the most competitive position on the pitch. We’re in a battle every week to get a jersey, not to mind to start. I’d have to say I’m hugely enjoying it and learning from it.
“The performance from the starting back row at the weekend was second to none. I thought their energy, their moments in the game, the amount of work they got through, was incredible. From a team point of view, you couldn’t be prouder of the way the team worked at the weekend. Particularly the back row.”
Such is O’Mahony’s competitive streak, it comes as little surprise to hear he was disappointed not to get the nod to start Ireland’s first game in eight months. Yet, once he came to terms with the fact he was on the bench, he started to ponder how he could make an impact if called upon.
He managed to do just that in his short time on the pitch, his sublime one-handed offload releasing Bundee Aki for a memorable try inside the final quarter.
“I’d be sitting here and lying to you if I said I didn’t want to start. At the end of the day, there’s 23 people who need to take the pitch at any given time on a Saturday or a Sunday. There’s a massive emphasis put on our bench to come on and not just roll in, but to make a difference.
“You’ve got to make a difference and be different when you come on. That’s the pressure we put on ourselves. I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating. I want to play every game, I want to start every match.
“That’s just the way we all are as a group. I think we understand that the team comes first and you’ve got to be best prepared to play 79 minutes or 80 minutes, or 15. It doesn’t matter what you get, you’ve got to be ready to go.”
Whereas O’Mahony will be hoping to pick his 69th Ireland cap at the Stade de France this coming weekend, it will be a particularly special moment for prop Cian Healy if he does make it onto the pitch. Following his 99th appearance against Italy, the Leinster loosehead is set to join a unique set of Irish centurions.
As it stands, only Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and John Hayes have earned 100 caps or more for their country.
Healy’s impending landmark becomes all the more remarkable when you consider he was on the brink of retirement in the summer of 2015 due to a serious neck injury. Having packed down with him for countless Tests, O’Mahony is delighted the Clontarf native has been able to reach such a milestone.
The professionalism for Cian to be available to play that many games for Ireland, not to mind to be selected, is incredible. Including in that a big stint out which, he wouldn’t mind me saying, was touch and go for him at one stage as regards to getting back playing at all.
“To get back to the form he’s got back to over the last three or four years, if he does get his shot at the weekend, I don’t think anyone deserves it more. His work ethic, his professionalism. A huge character around the place.
“Has filled into a leadership role as well for the younger front rowers coming in around him. To have him to learn off, from their point of view. Not just the looseheads, but all the front rows. It’s an incredible achievement and hopefully whoever gets picked can make it a special one for him.”
With the prospect of a fourth Six Nations crown in the space of seven seasons very much alive, there will be no lack of motivation for table-topping Ireland when they cross the white line on Saturday night.
Nonetheless, having played the full 80 minutes of their last outing in Saint-Denis in February 2018, when Jonathan Sexton’s last-gasp drop goal sealed a dramatic away win, O’Mahony understands how difficult it will be to come out with the result they crave.
“It’s a cup final week. You don’t need any more motivation than that, to be winning trophies with your national team. It’s the epitome of it, any competition as competitive as this. Weeks like this don’t come around very often.
“It’s important to enjoy them, but it’s important to understand what it takes to win a Championship. That’s secondary to winning in France. It’s a different animal to a lot of these games. We understand the challenge that’s ahead,” he added.