Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony’s advice for the three players starting their first Guinness Six Nations game is to enjoy the occasion and just focus on doing the things that got you selected in the first place.
The 2024 Men’s Six Nations starts tonight in Marseille with a crunch clash between the last two Grand Slam winners, as Ireland, the world’s second-ranked team, look to overturn France on French soil for the first time since 2018.
It will be a big occasion for O’Mahony himself as Ireland’s new skipper in the post-Jonathan Sexton era, and equally so for Calvin Nash, Jack Crowley, and Joe McCarthy, who have been handed their first Six Nations starts.
Both Crowley and McCarthy played at the recent Rugby World Cup, making five appearances between them, and the 26-year-old Nash was a try scorer during Munster’s BKT United Rugby Championship final win in Cape Town last June.
Given how diligent and level-headed all three appear to be, O’Mahony will not have to offer much guidance but did say: “The reason you were picked for the squad, go and play to the best of your ability. Go and play to the best of your strengths, and enjoy the game.
“Do your very best to enjoy the occasion because it will pass you by like that. It’s hard to get back, first Six Nations games, first caps. I know we don’t have one of them (on Friday), but it’s easy to let it pass you by.
“Everyone in there is picked for a different little reason. Bring that bit of specialness that you’ve been picked for and drive it on.”
Speaking at the Captain’s Run press conference in the Stade Vélodrome, O’Mahony had a few special words for fellow Corkman Crowley, a player he has been lining out with in Munster red since 2021.
A product of Bandon Rugby Club and Bandon Grammar School, Innishannon native Crowley moved to Energia All-Ireland League heavyweights Cork Constitution in 2019, where his older brother Billy was playing.
Of course, the O’Mahony family, including Peter’s dad, known affectionately as ‘Con John’, a club President in recent years, are Con through and through. It was not long before word of Crowley’s talent and potential was passed on to the then-Munster skipper.
A whirlwind few months followed in 2020 as Jack won the All-Ireland League Division 1A Rising Star award, helped the Ireland Under-20s to Triple Crown success in the Covid-19-impacted U-20 Six Nations, and moved up from the sub-Academy to Munster’s Academy squad.
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Similar to Craig Casey, Crowley’s rugby skills, sheer work ethic, and competitive drive have shone through, with O’Mahony revealing: “I remember Jack playing for Con and getting reports that he was the real deal. You know, fast forward a few years and here we are.
“He’s obviously grown and learnt a huge amount. What a way to start off your international career under Johnny (Sexton), and others as well under guys like Joey (Carbery), Ross (Byrne). Loads of guys I’m sure he’s learned a huge amount from.
Again, an unbelievable man to learn the game, watch the game. Himself and Craig (Casey), I don’t know what they’d be doing, but they’d be in the HPC (in Limerick) for hours on end, be it recovering, on laptops, doing extras in the gym.
“They’re just unbelievable professionals. Again, he had a bit to learn and he’s done that and he’s plenty to go as well, but he knows that better than anyone. That’s a good sign of a professional.
“I’m delighted for him and I’m sure he’ll put in a huge performance for us on Friday as well. It’s a big occasion that we need big players (for) and he’s certainly one of them.”
The 34-year-old flanker also had high praise for powerful second row McCarthy who, like Crowley, made his Ireland debut during the 2022 Bank of Ireland Nations Series. Given his big frame and raw physicality, he played for the Ireland U-20s at the age of 18.
Dublin University put a lot of hard work into the former Blackrock College tyro. Coaching input from Tony Smeeth, Hugh Maguire, and Ian Hirst helped to quicken his development while gaining All-Ireland League experience alongside Ryan Baird and Harry Sheridan at lock.
Leinster built on those solid foundations, the Academy graduate making a serious splash to earn his first senior contract just last March. He is now a regular starter in the province’s engine room and aiming to transfer those abrasive recent performances to the Test arena.
“Obviously the performances that you’ve seen is the energy that Joe is bringing,” noted O’Mahony. “Big, athletic. What a man to do extras to learn. He’s been in a bit now and you can see every camp he goes away, he’s picking stuff up and he’s learning and he’s putting it in his game.
“He’s eager to learn and perform and play well and impress, and that is exactly what he has done. Destructive would be a word I’d use for him.
“He loves the game. He’s a great man to have around, great craic, and has really added to our squad in more ways than just rugby.”
With the 22-year-old McCarthy picked to pack down alongside Tadhg Beirne, and both Baird and James Ryan set to provide impact from a six-two bench split, Ulster’s Iain Henderson is the player to miss out in the second row stakes.
Henderson started the World Cup in an impact role and ended the tournament as a starter. O’Mahony has been there before when tough selection calls do not go your way, and how Henderson reacted spoke volumes about him as a player and a leader within the group.
“People like that, you talk about Hendy. He gets bad news during the week, he’s the kind of guy that came to me during the week to see did I need anything. It’s different level that way.
“It’s not about you in this group. It’s about the collective and it’s about delivering a performance for the jersey and the country, 100%.
“I’ve been in that position, you feel disappointed, but you’ve no right to feel sorry for yourself. It’s about something bigger than that, and we have people in this group who want to do well for the group regardless of what happens, and deliver the best of themselves.”
Given how close they were to overhauling New Zealand during the final quarter with Ronan Kelleher agonisingly held up, O’Mahony knows how important the battle to win each moment is against France, especially when international defences are of such a high calibre.
“The thing is when you play teams like this, those moments don’t come up a huge amount, that’s the problem. You’re coming up against excellent defences that are incredibly well-coached, and we have to be able to see those moments when they come and take them every time.
“You might get two or three of them in a match, when someone’s a little bit fatigued or someone drops off for whatever reason, and we have to have the ability to capitalise if we want to be as successful as we’re talking about.
“You review, you review training, you’ve bits…again, we train against an incredible defence every week, with our defence. So you try and pick holes in that, and afterwards see where you can get better and improve, along with reviewing games,” he added.