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O'Mahony needs to deliver as he faces up to a crossroads

 

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Crunch time: Peter O'Mahony (left) with Johnny Sexton

Crunch time: Peter O'Mahony (left) with Johnny Sexton

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Crunch time: Peter O'Mahony (left) with Johnny Sexton

It is a Six Nations ritual at this stage. The camera pans across the line of Irish players and lingers on Peter O'Mahony's face, contorted and puce as he displays his passion by belting out the anthem as loudly as possible.

For almost a decade, the Munster skipper has been a central part of this team, a leader on the pitch and off it. However, he has entered an uncertain phase of his career.

There was a time not too long ago when O'Mahony seemed like the natural successor to Rory Best as captain, but when the time came and the debate raged he rarely featured.

Johnny Sexton got the gig, a continuation of the change in Joe Schmidt's approach in 2019.

When they were joint-captains on the summer tour of Australia in 2018, O'Mahony led the team. A year later at the World Cup, they were both chosen to start against Russia but it was the out-half who got the nod.

To add insult to injury, when Farrell named his team to face Scotland last weekend, O'Mahony found himself on the bench.

It was the first time Ireland played an important game without him in the starting XV since he was sprung into the team at the 11th hour when Jamie Heaslip's back injury flared up in the warm-up against England in 2017.

He won man of the match that day and propelled himself onto the Lions tour where he ended up captaining the team in the first Test.

That there was little discussion around his omission told its own story, yet it seemed unfair that the Corkman should carry the can for Ireland's disappointing World Cup campaign.

O'Mahony himself would concede that the tournament didn't go the way he wanted, but when the game against New Zealand was slipping away from Ireland, it was their vice-captain who fought a lone battle.

O'Mahony doesn't rack up big numbers like many of his colleagues, but he is prone to coming up with big moments when it matters most.

At this stage of his career, is that enough?

Caelan Doris' emergence has forced Farrell into a rethink. The young No.8's fourth-minute injury meant O'Mahony came off the bench and played for most of last week's opening game, doing enough to replace the youngster in the starting XV today.

He remains part of Farrell's senior leadership team, but will he still be part of the starting XV when the full squad is available?

"It's the most competitive area," O'Mahony's old Munster team-mate Ronan O'Gara said this week. "His challenge short-term has to be presenting himself fit for every training session and showing consistently that he's an 80-minute player."

If Farrell was looking for a response from one of his senior men, he got it last week as O'Mahony came in and influenced the game with an all-action display.

But there remains questions over his overall game, in particular his ball-carrying.

Although he was never Ireland's biggest carrier or top tackler, he was more effective with ball in hand in his early years and a more frequent tackler. Over time, he has evolved into a breakdown threat and lineout forward who is sometimes use as a passing pivot.

According to the Six Nations statistics, O'Mahony made zero dominant tackles in last year's tournament while he beat no defenders with ball in hand in any of the 12 matches across the year.

The 30-year-old has never played the media game and remains a stand-offish figure.

Yet for all that he is guarded when the microphones are present, he leaves nothing out there on the rugby pitch where there is no questioning his commitment.

Man of the match when Ireland beat the All Blacks in Dublin in what was arguably the high point of the World Cup era, O'Mahony took the team's decline in 2019 hard.

While Farrell left him out last week, he was content to recall him.

"I hope he brings the same as what he did off the bench last week," the coach said of O'Mahony.

"He was bleeding a lot. He got a smack on the back of the neck after a brilliant turnover. I thought he was a warrior."

It is that warrior spirit that comes to mind when one thinks of O'Mahony.

He is a war-time consigliere, a tough customer who has reserved some of his biggest performances for the most important games.

And yet, his place is less secure than it has ever been and he has been overlooked as captain.

He finds himself at a crossroads, but today's match offers an opportunity to remind everyone of his quality.

Belfast Telegraph