Ire­land ready to get down and dirty with Pu mas

Play­ers as much as the fans are ex­pect­ing a 3-0 se­ries win

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley Rugby Cor­re­spon­dent O’Ma­hony em­brac­ing the pres­sure:

The South African game, á la Chicago a year ago, set the tone for a mem­o­rable Novem­ber, but akin to the fi­nale against Aus­tralia, in many ways this fi­nal game – Ire­land’s last un­til their Six Na­tions opener in Paris – leaves the longer af­ter­taste. Ire­land, play­ers as much as fans, ex­pect a 3-0 se­ries and a sev­enth straight win.

Re­venge for the 2015 World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal de­feat is com­par­a­tively smaller beer, partly be­cause it could never be ad­e­quate com­pen­sa­tion. It was the same when Ire­land reg­is­tered Novem­ber wins in the cy­cles af­ter the 1999 and 2007 World Cup de­feats.

Ire­land re­tain five of their 2015 line-up, and one re­place­ment, while Ar­gentina re­tain seven starters. Rory Best is the sole sur­vivor from the 2007 game in Paris, when Ar­gentina’s 30-15 vic­tory put Ire­land out of their mis­ery.

“That World Cup will cer­tainly be in the top three in terms of most dis­ap­point­ing mo­ments in my ca­reer,” said Best, re­call­ing how they had been two min­utes away from beat­ing France at home in the pre­ced­ing Six Na­tions and a po­ten­tial Grand Slam be­fore “stut­ter­ing” into the World Cup.

“Even the Georgia game, I am pretty sure they scored right at the death to po­ten­tially win the game even though it was ruled that he was held up. Noth­ing clicked for us in that tour­na­ment and by the time it got to the Ar­gentina game, there was al­most a feel­ing around the camp, and I will never for­get it, that peo­ple just wanted to go home. They had had enough.

“We ob­vi­ously went out there know­ing we needed a per­for­mance of a life­time to beat them and ev­ery­one was just fed up. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a squad like that since.

“Ar­gentina, to be fair to them, in that World Cup sur­prised a lot of peo­ple. They were phe­nom­e­nal, right from the first game when they beat France.”

Di­luted

The for­mer Le­in­ster man Felipe Con­tepomi and some of his old Mun­ster bud­dies are no longer around. Thus, akin to the Roy Keane-Pa­trick Vieira in­fused Manch­ester United-Arse­nal ri­valry, some of the edge has been di­luted. Los Pu­mas have also moved on from the mix of maul­ing, scrum­mag­ing and one-off run­ners which fre­quently dragged Ir­ish teams, like so many oth­ers, into arm wres­tles.

Alas, the game will not fea­ture a farewell ap­pear­ance in this coun­try for the in­jured Juan Martin Her­nan­dez, aka “El Mago”. Ire­land are also with­out his near­est equiv­a­lent, Si­mon Zebo, as well as the flair of Keith Earls and three front-line cen­tres. Hence, this lat­est meet­ing might not scale the en­ter­pris­ing heights of Ire­land’s 46-24 win on Ar­gentina’s last visit here five years ago, nor los Pu­mas’s 43-20 quar­ter-fi­nal win just un­der two years ago.

In­jus­tice

For starters, it could be do­ing this Ir­ish back­line an in­jus­tice to sug­gest there have been pre­de­ces­sors with more ap­par­ent flair but, at any rate, with just five caps among the three-quar­ter line and new com­bi­na­tions in mid­field and in the back three, it is at the very least un­proven.

Nor, with­out over­seas play­ers like Juan Imhoff, scorer of two tries that day, do Ar­gentina have the same cut­ting edge, even though they re­tain full­back Joaquín Tu­culet as well as their out­stand­ing halves, Martin Lan­dajo and Ni­co­las Sanchez, and have un­earthed a few new gems such as the 6ft 4in goal-kick­ing winger, Emil­iano Bof­felli, whom the debu­tant Adam Byrne will be op­pos­ing.

Los Pu­mas have shown a fa­cil­ity for keep­ing the ball, even­tu­ally grinding Eng­land down for their sole con­so­la­tion try at Twick­en­ham through 30 phases and al­most four min­utes.

How­ever, akin to South Africa here, Ar­gentina strug­gled to adapt to the new law in­ter­pre­ta­tions at the break­down. They re­cy­cled the ball re­peat­edly against Eng­land, but by com­mit­ting four men to rucks where Eng­land of­ten had only one or none, mean­ing they were re­peat­edly run­ning into brick walls. In that 21-8 de­feat, they also left 11 em­i­nently kick­able points be­hind at Twick­en­ham.

Adapted

But, akin also to South Africa when beat­ing France last week­end, there were clear signs that Ar­gentina had adapted bet­ter when beat­ing Italy last Satur­day, al­beit two of their tries were more about wear­ing down the Az­zurri de­fence than pierc­ing it.

That said, an­other pat­tern in their win­less Rugby Cham­pi­onship was how they faded away but in the last dozen min­utes against Eng­land and Italy, they scored three tries and con­ceded none.

Against Eng­land, they played the 6ft 5in Mar­cos Kre­mer, a some­time lock, in the back­row, as they went for all out size, and re­tained him there both last week and to­day. But, in the bat­tle up front, it is the qual­ity of the Ir­ish pack which should swing the game Ire­land’s way.

Ire­land have an ex­cel­lent scrum, and few of­fi­ci­ate the scrum bet­ter than Mathieu Ray­nal, a fine ref­eree all round.

The ath­letic James Ryan makes his full de­but, and with Peter O’Ma­hony there, the Ir­ish line-out can cope un­til the ar­rival of Devin Toner. And then there’s the all-Lions mid­dle five in the back­row and half­backs.

Tellingly, Sex­ton has a 4-0 record against the Pu­mas, scor­ing 60 points, and Ire­land have also won all seven meet­ings in Dublin. Fore­cast: Ire­land to win

Since he was a kid Peter O’Ma­hony has cap­tained ev­ery team he’s ever played for, from the Cork Con Un­der-12s all the way through to the Lions, which would make you think that the Mun­ster skip­per must en­joy be­ing back in the trenches with Ire­land. No eve-of-match cap­tain’s run press con­fer­ences for starters.

In­stead, Rory Best can con­tinue to han­dle that and all the other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties which go hand-in-hand with the task of cap­tain­ing his coun­try.

It’s been dif­fi­cult cap­tain­ing Mun­ster at times, O’Ma­hony ad­mits. Yet if the truth be told, the pres­sures are only mod­er­ately less oner­ous when be­ing in the gen­eral fir­ing line on an al­most weekly ba­sis.

“Cap­taincy is dif­fi­cult full stop. You’ve a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity, but you’ve a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity any­way as a rugby player ev­ery time you go out on the pitch. If you thought about it like an of­fice job, you’ve the big­gest job ever ev­ery week­end. If you badly f*** up one that could be your last job, do you know what I mean?

“There’s a lot of pres­sure on ev­ery week­end. Then when you’re cap­tain, you put a bit more re­spon­si­bil­ity on your­self, and there’s a bit more added on from other peo­ple. What­ever way you look at it, it’s dif­fi­cult.”

The cap­taincy thing dates back to the Cork Con un­der-12s on their an­nual trip to France, when the club’s ser­vant of over half a cen­tury, Fred Casey, be­queathed the re­spon­si­bil­ity upon him.

“Fred coached my dad as well as all my broth­ers [Mark and Cian], so he’s been there a long time.”

Cian is 11 years younger, and is, like his older broth­ers were be­fore him, in PBC Cork.

O’Ma­hony al­ways brings plenty of emo­tion to his rugby, and you see it from the na­tional an­thems on­wards. One imag­ines his fam­ily, Cork Con, Casey, Mun­ster and Ire­land all come through his mind in those min­utes. A man of his parish, his club, his school and his prov­ince. Old school. But he’d be the last man on earth to claim he’s a nat­u­ral born leader of men. “Some­times you’re pi­geon-holed from the start, but I must say I en­joy hav­ing an in­put into the plan­ning, the stan­dards around the pitch and out­side the pitch. I en­joy all that stuff.”

Ex­pe­ri­enced voices

He’s learned from watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to plenty of ex­pe­ri­enced voices in the Mun­ster and Ir­ish dress­ing-rooms, and ref­er­ences them all.

“Guys like Paulie [O’Con­nell] prob­a­bly gave that les­son more than any­one else. It was nice to have him around at the time, to take a bit of heat off him, as well as get­ting a huge amount of ex­pe­ri­ence and guid­ance and help along the way.”

Ac­tu­ally, in con­trast to keep­ing an eye on a rel­a­tive rookie as the older Mun­ster guard would have done with him start­ing out, he reck­ons cap­tain­ing the Lions was the eas­i­est of all.

“Guys can look af­ter them­selves. You don’t need to worry about them. You’re play­ing with some of the best play­ers in the world. With the [Lions] lads you just worry about get­ting ready and [say] a cou­ple of words here and there.”

Be­sides, cap­tain­ing Mun­ster fol­low­ing the pass­ing of An­thony Fo­ley puts ev­ery­thing else in per­spec­tive.

“There were a cou­ple of dif­fi­cult press con­fer­ences that no-one should be put through but we got through them as a club. If you had any grow­ing up to do that was the year you needed to do it, and to be fair ev­ery­one did.”

Speak­ing in a rare quiet room amid a busy lunchtime in the Car­ton House Ho­tel on Thurs­day, O’Ma­hony talks with his cus­tom­ary straight­ness and hon­esty. He had just briefly shared the top ta­ble with Joe Schmidt on foot of the Ir­ish team an­nounce­ment for to­day’s game.

By com­par­i­son with last sea­son at Mun­ster he says: “Sit­ting up there now to­day, it’s laugh­able how easy it is in con­trast to what you’ve gone through.”

Go­ing into this au­tum­nal window last year, O’Ma­hony hadn’t played for Ire­land for 13 months due to the cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in­jury he sus­tained in that costly World Cup pool win over France.

“Yeah, it was a long time, but it’s part and par­cel of rugby isn’t it? It’s in­juries and set­backs. It’s just part of it nowa­days. That’s the joys of it.”

He re­turned on Oc­to­ber 1st last sea­son as a sub against Ze­bre, but even af­ter three sub­se­quent matches for Mun­ster the Chicago game came just too soon for him.

Af­ter start­ing against Canada, he missed out on the re­turn meet­ing with the All Blacks, with CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in the back row, and Josh van der Flier on the bench. A week later against Aus­tralia O’Ma­hony was only a late ad­di­tion to the bench due to O’Brien with­draw­ing be­fore kick-off with a leg in­jury.

Big car­ries

Just past the hour, O’Ma­hony made a huge im­pact, win­ning turnovers and mak­ing some big car­ries, no­tably in the build-up to Keith Earls’ match-win­ning try.

How­ever, he missed out on the open­ing two rounds of the Six Na­tions with a pulled ham­string, and af­ter cameos off the bench against France and Wales, was due to fill the same role in the fi­nale against Eng­land.

Where­upon Heaslip, of all peo­ple, with­drew as the play­ers were pulling on the jer­seys for the an­thems. So O’Ma­hony started, with Stander shift­ing to num­ber eight. It was “about six or seven min­utes” be­fore kick-off. “I did the warm-up as a sub.”

Hardly ideal, but O’Ma­hony says: “It’s much bet­ter in a way, be­cause you pre­pare as if you’re play­ing. You’ve done your work, so it’s no panic.”

O’Ma­hony was man of the match in Ire­land’s 13-9 win.

“It went al­right,” he says, typ­i­cally dead­pan. “We worked hard, and I had worked hard for a long time to get back. You’ve got to be good on the day to beat a team like Eng­land. It felt good af­ter­wards.”

It was his first Test start against a Tier One na­tion in 17 months and as if to prove the va­garies of the sport, the pre­vi­ously in­de­struc­tible Heaslip hasn’t played since.

Go­ing into that game, O’Ma­hony would have given him­self long odds on mak­ing the Lions, reck­on­ing he’d had a bet­ter chance four years be­fore.

He and his Mun­ster team-mates, in­clud­ing Stander and Conor Mur­ray, were train­ing in the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick when the squad was an­nounced.

“As the ses­sion fin­ished, the phys­ios gave the thumbs up from the side­lines. That was a nice way to find out. But I cer­tainly was sur­prised.”

A Lions tour is, he ad­mits, “mas­sively dif­fer­ent” from any other ex­pe­ri­ence, but he adds: “It was as good as I ever ex­pected it to be. They were an in­cred­i­ble group of play­ers and I re­ally en­joyed spend­ing time with them from day one ’til the last night. Good friends made. Good ex­pe­ri­ences. Good fun.”

He looks back on it now with “huge pride” in cap­tain­ing the Lions in the first Test, and if he has any re­grets it was with how he played in that game in Eden Park.

Huge hon­our

“I didn’t play as well as I would have hoped in the first Test, but it was a huge hon­our. I wanted to play in the last two but I wouldn’t be bit­ter. I en­joyed the tour.”

He points out that the Lions won the sec­ond Test and drew the third.

“On a tour like that, and how short it is, once ev­ery four years, you feel sorry for your­self for five min­utes, but I was in­vested from day one, never mind five or six weeks in. It’s just part of rugby, isn’t it.” He doesn’t say it as if there should be a ques­tion mark.

His dad John, a long-stand­ing stal­wart of Cork Con, ar­rived the day be­fore the Maori game, when O’Ma­hony was the cap­tain in a bench­mark win.

O’Ma­hony is sim­i­larly san­guine about Rassie Eras­mus and Jac­ques Nien­aber mov­ing on. It’s a pro­fes­sional sport, wit­ness con­fir­ma­tion of Ronan O’Gara’s switch to the Cru­saders this week.

“He’s go­ing to be noth­ing but bet­ter for it. He’s ob­vi­ously had a good ex­pe­ri­ence in France and this one could be bet­ter again with a team like Cru­saders, and the cul­ture they have, the qual­ity of player and qual­ity of coach, the learn­ing will be end­less for him. He’ll have a lot of knowl­edge go­ing in their di­rec­tion as well.”

O’Ma­hony him­self will hope­fully re­main with Mun­ster for the rest of his ca­reer, and has al­ready had a good few chats with Jo­hann van Graan.

“He’s as keen as mus­tard and a nice guy”.

How­ever, O’Ma­hony is out of con­tract at the end of the sea­son, and no less than on the pitch, he can­not be taken for granted.

“It would be nice to get it sorted, yeah. We’ll see though,” he says. “Ideally I would like to [stay],” he adds, when pushed. “I like it around here, but they’ve got to come to the ta­ble as well. I want to play for Mun­ster and Ire­land, but it’s got to be fair as well.”

He’s not afraid to say it as he feels it, as Reg­gie Cor­ri­gan found out as much in that post-match TV in­ter­view when he asked O’Ma­hony if his team had brought enough in­ten­sity.

“What do you mean? You’re ques­tion­ing my team-mates?”

O’Ma­hony main­tains he didn’t get much re­ac­tion in the days and weeks af­ter­wards. “I wouldn’t change the way I asked the ques­tion. It’s some­thing that is in­grained in Ir­ish rugby, that we work hard and that’s not ques­tioned, and that’s the way I would an­swer it if ever asked again.”

Don’t think he ever will be. Mov­ing on to to­day, O’Ma­hony main­tains there were “plenty of things to scrub up on” from the win over South Africa and says to­day is “a huge game for this group of play­ers”.

This ap­plies to him as much as any­one. No area un­der­lines the tru­ism of fac­ing the big­gest job ever, ev­ery week­end, than the Ir­ish back row.

“My knee is start­ing to feel nor­mal again. A lot of fel­las that I’ve talked to say it takes two years to feel nor­mal, and it’s two years now. I feel my fit­ness is good and I’m en­joy­ing my rugby at the mo­ment.”

He’s deeply in­vested in the game, but ad­mits a player could burn him­self out over think­ing about the game. It helps that O’Ma­hony has al­ways known how to switch off away from the game, and he and Jes­sica have a one-and-a-half year old daugh­ter.

“She takes up most of your time. She’s great fun, a good age, and a great char­ac­ter.”

He also likes his shoot­ing, and so has three dogs, two Labradors, Roxy and Clouseau, and a Springer Spaniel, ‘Sailor’. “Prob­a­bly a cou­ple too many to be hon­est,” he says with a rue­ful smile.

He plays golf, and dur­ing the sum­mer months, he does some surf kayak­ing.

“I love be­ing out­doors. I’ve al­ways been like that.”

Ask him what he en­joys most about play­ing rugby, and the an­swer is un­sur­pris­ing.

“I en­joy the game, but I en­joy the 10 to 15 min­utes in the chang­ing room, es­pe­cially with Ire­land af­ter win­ning in Lans­downe Road, when you can chill out even be­fore you have a shower. You’ve worked hard to­gether and it’s been a good day. That’s the rea­son you play.”

O’Ma­hony is among that cur­rent gen­er­a­tion who were im­pres­sion­able teenagers in those vin­tage years when Mun­ster and Le­in­ster were con­quer­ing Europe and Ire­land were win­ning the Grand Slam in 2009. So there’s plenty to achieve yet.

“There’s a good bunch of us who will be around for a lot longer. Whether we get picked or not is a dif­fer­ent thing, but we’ll be do­ing our best to give our­selves a shot. Fel­las are hun­gry to win tro­phies, not just win with Ire­land, but win sil­ver­ware.

“The same with our provinces. We’re not here to make up the num­bers. We want to go on and win cham­pi­onships. We want to be the team that ev­ery Novem­ber is 3-0, and ev­ery Six Na­tions we’re tipped and there or there­abouts ev­ery year. There’s lots for all of us, but the way we go about that is our process of game by game. That’s how we’ve been suc­cess­ful and that’s how we’re go­ing to get suc­cess in the fu­ture.”

Ideally I would like to (stay). I like it around here, but they’ve got to come to the ta­ble as well. I want to play for Mun­ster and Ire­land, but it’s got to be fair as well I en­joy the game, but I en­joy the 10 to 15 min­utes in the chang­ing room, es­pe­cially with Ire­land af­ter win­ning in Lans­downe Road

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DAVID ROGERS/GETTY IM­AGES

Peter O’Ma­hony takes on New Zealand’s Aaron Cru­den dur­ing the first Test match at Eden Park in Auck­land last June. “With the [Lions] lads you just worry about get­ting ready and [say] a cou­ple of words here and there.” Huge game

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