Belfast Telegraph

Rowntree in no doubt that born leader O'Mahony will ensure the Lions roar

New Zealand v Lions, First Test: Eden Park, Saturday, 8.35am

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Peter O'Mahony was born to lead rugby teams. From an early age, coaches identified his capacity to captain sides and at every level of the game he has been chosen for the role.

Yet the idea of the Munster skipper leading the Lions into action on Saturday seemed beyond remote only a couple of months ago when he couldn't get into the Ireland back-row during the Six Nations.

Only the serious back injury suffered by Jamie Heaslip in the build-up to the England game afforded him access to the team and he hasn't looked back once.

That final Six Nations game was a reminder of the unique figure Ireland have at their disposal in O'Mahony. Others may do more spectacular things on a rugby pitch, but the 27-year-old is a war-time consigliere, a man you want beside you when the heat is turned up.

Injury has limited his trajectory in recent years, but when Joe Schmidt opts to make a transition from 34-year-old Rory Best with the World Cup in mind, O'Mahony is the only candidate for the job.

He commands respect, speaks with authority and does not suffer fools. Behind his at times gruff exterior is a funny, respectful character who morphs into a figure of huge intensity, work rate and no little skill when he crosses the white line.

The Lions are catapulting him to a new audience, but he has remained the same O'Mahony throughout.

"He's a good fella," scrum coach Graham Rowntree said yesterday. "He's able to relax. I can't speak highly enough of the fella. He's great whatever role he performs going forward. He'll be great for the group. The lads respect his actions and want to follow him.

"This is as intense a gig as I have ever done. We seem to have been in a hundred hotels in the last week. You need to switch off. You need guys who can flick in and out of intensity. He has got that.

"Off the field, you don't see him growling at people in the dining room."

While his off-pitch demeanour is important, it's O'Mahony's on-field combination of stubborn belligerence, brilliant lineout work and relentless drive that has edged him in front of CJ Stander and Sam Warburton in the battle for back-row places.

The field is competitive, but Warren Gatland has identified the need for a blindside with lineout qualities against what Rowntree described as the best set-piece team in the world.

Against England he was a thorn in Dylan Hartley's side in the game many believe earned him his spot on tour, but the Harlequins coach says he was always pencilled in to go on tour.

"He was one player who would have been earmarked from an early stage for a Lions tour," he said.

"He's exactly the character you need - a guy who would get on with things if he wasn't involved in the Test squad.

"He would pull along the rest of that group and we need that on Lions tours. His form at the end of the Six Nations and for Munster, and he's led Munster well after the Six Nations, that's got him on the tour."

Since getting on the tour, O'Mahony has thrived; playing a leading role in the wins over the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks and contributing in every facet of the game.

"He's got the respect of the group, that's for sure, by his actions and not just by what he's been saying as a captain," Rowntree said.

"(He) gets on with things, it's that Munster kind of aggression around everything we do in training, determination, almost 'follow me, lads'.

"He has that Paul O'Connell kind of DNA in him, being a Munster man. He's a good guy as well, very diligent, not afraid in training of saying, 'Lads, this isn't good enough'. He's pulling along the standards, along with the coaches.

"You look at his game last Saturday night - involvements high and effective, aggressive. I thought he dealt with the referee well as well, respectfully speaking to the referee without being in his ear too much.

"I've enjoyed working with him. I've coached against him for a long time and he's always a handful when you're playing against Ireland, but I'm delighted he's on the tour."

O'Mahony leads a formidable pack into world rugby's most impenetrable fortress, Eden Park.

The Lions hope to take the All Blacks up front, denying their super-talented backs the time and space to thrive and then enveloping them with their defensive line-speed.

The Saracens-heavy tight-five is bolstered by Tadhg Furlong's all-round abilities, while the back-row of O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Taulupe Faletau has impressed.

Johnny Sexton loses out to Owen Farrell, who partners Conor Murray, with Ben Te'o joining Jonathan Davies in the centre. The dual-code international's clashes with Sonny Bill Williams will be seismic.

Gatland sprung something of a surprise by selecting Liam Williams ahead of Leigh Halfpenny at full-back, while on the wings Elliot Daly is preferred to George North, who has struggled thus far, with Anthony Watson the best of the rest in a disappointing bunch.

The coaches informed the players in a team meeting yesterday and Rowntree says they will not go over-board in ramping things up before kick-off.

"We have got to get it right from the get-go, we have got to win that first Test," he said. "You have got to be careful what you say to them, you don't have to be stood in front of them all the time, telling them what to do or how to feel, they are pretty much there.

"Warren is very good at being succinct. He was really good last night, really passionate. I am sure there will be another passionate speech, but it won't be long. These guys will be chomping at the bit."

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