Ireland ready to get down and dirty with Pu mas
Players as much as the fans are expecting a 3-0 series win
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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
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