From Cork Con to icon, the Munster flanker is integral to Irish hopes at the World Cup. We talk to those who have witnessed his rise
The making of Peter O’Mahony
Ahead of this Rugby World Cup, has honed his reputation as one of the finest defensive lineout technicians and ball snafflers in the global game.
Just ask the All Blacks, who saw the momentum swing away from them last November as the flanker stole ball at the ruck and even tore back to snuff out a certain New Zealand try, despite injury.
Bloody-mindedness is to be expected, as is the thousand-yard stare. Here, those who saw his rise fill us in on his evolution as key man for Munster and Ireland.
Childhood pal Peter Kelleher was O’Mahony’s hooker at Cork Con juniors, Presentation Brothers College and more
“We started playing at U8s – I think he started when he was about five or six – and he was always as competitive. He always just wanted to win.
“We played together from eight to 12 at Cork Con. At that time, he was still playing out-half. Then we went to secondary school together, with Pres. He moved to second-row when he was about 15. We were part of the Munster U16 team and that’s where he really started to kick on and take leadership of the whole team, even though he had just swapped positions and wouldn’t have been perceived around the province as one of the best players. But you could see he felt he was and he was perfectly capable.
“I remember we had our state exams, and it’s in the summer, in June, and it’s really warm. Nobody wants to be there. But in Ireland it’s when you go from U15 to U16 that you start lifting in lineouts. And so during our junior certs (the state exams), Pete was organising lineout sessions in between them.
“Everybody else is studying for the next exam. So you had a set at 9am that probably finishes at 12 and you might have another starting at 2 o’clock. Peter’s doing lineout sessions.
“I remember walking in after one and it’s seriously hot, I’m bucketing sweat. We’re going in to get to another exam and we met the teacher who looks at us and says, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ We say, ‘Oh, we were out there on the pitch doing lineouts.’ That’s when he started to take control of that side of things and show his leadership qualities.”
Brian Walsh coached O’Mahony when Con won an All-Ireland League and in a spell as an assistant at Munster
“I was playing with Cork Constitution, like Peter’s dad John, who has been a president of Con in the last few years. He would have been up there kicking the ball around with his buddies. And then I suppose when he got a bit older he was working in the bar, collecting glasses.
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“I also went to Pres so I’m always interested in the rugby there, so I’ve seen Peter play a lot there. I just think he was fiercely competitive. I’d say Peter was always the alpha male in his side. You always got the sense speaking to him about rugby that he was mature, he wanted to get out and get it done. He was very physical and in his younger years quite confrontational.
“Especially then it was very important for Peter to show that he wouldn’t take a backward step. You know, sometimes when you’re a younger player coming into an experienced men’s side, playing against older players, they can spot that and they can try and test somebody. Peter would never be shy in giving his opinion. As that matured, it turned into demanding standards of other people.
“In essence, Peter just wanted to play. But it also could have been an easier path for Peter, he could have gone to a different club, walked into the first team. The club was very successful at the time. It suddenly became a challenge and Peter is not a man for the easy road or short cuts. He embraced that and it was difficult at times because he had the ability potential. He took on the challenge and made a huge impact.
“I do remember, there was a final we played one year. Peter was making that step up for Munster and wouldn’t be available to the club side that often. We had a good unit, were going well.
“Peter became available for the final but he didn’t start at this time. He came out at half-time and had a big impact. I remember having a conversation with him around that and I knew he just wanted to play and pull on the jersey and do what he could do. But he never challenged me over it. He understood it.
“Peter’s satisfaction is in seeing the team do well. He transitioned very quickly to that understanding, from being the best player on the park at a school level to seeing the value of somebody who drives a team.”
Former Ireland hooker Mike Sherry spent years throwing the ball to O’Mahony at Munster
“He was in the age grade below me but I’d played against him at school a couple of times. Then in the club game it was Garryowen versus Con and then we were in the academy set-up, so I’ve played with and against him a lot.
“At Con he was incredibly passionate and he was a skinny little wretch, so they’d fling him up in the lineout and he’d be robbing ball left, right and centre – not ideal for a young hooker trying to build up confidence!
“We joined Munster at around the same time and you could definitely tell there was something about him. He got slagged a lot at the time – not now as he’s a bit older – but when he was young he had a real old head on young shoulders. He was very sensible and is now very mature, but to a point.
“Whenever there’s a coffee group going or lads go for a meal (he’s there). Despite the kind of image he might like to portray as a hardman or whatever, he’s actually very good craic. On a night out he’s regularly competing for Man of the Match. He has a good balance between that, being serious and coming down hard on people and he can be hard on himself. He’s very, very demanding in terms of perfection. He’s stern but there’s definitely a fun side to him.
“We were at John Ryan’s wedding in Barcelona not long ago and you’d think his outfit was fancy dress. But he thought it was the business and cracked on for the day. He looked like your man from Jurassic Park (Richard Attenborough’s character) with the white linen suit and hat.
“He’s the best lineout player I’ve ever played with. He’s a dream to throw to. You throw it as high as you can and he’ll pluck it out with one hand or catch it if it’s a bit wayward.
“In defence, in the last few years when I was running the opposition plays at Munster training, it was a nightmare trying to throw over him. It’s almost like he psyches you into it and you throw the ball into his hands.
“Lineout callers and coaches at Munster over the years have always had extensive meetings about every possibility and then it’s previewed back to the squad, but I don’t think Pete sits in on those meetings too much. I think he’s given a free rein over certain areas and because he’s so good with his timing and so fast, he can get to balls.
“He’s world class, if not the best in the world, in the lineout, defence and attack. His breakdown work is incredible.
“I think it’s taken for granted the big moments and turnovers. If he has six or seven tackles and five or six carries, but has these moments, it’s swept under the carpet a bit and his stats are unfairly compared to other back-rows. He comes up with game-changing moments.”
Ireland cult hero Patrick ‘Rala’ O’Reilly spent years kitting out O’Mahony for his country and the British & Irish Lions
“I have so many happy memories spent in Peter’s company. A gentleman and a rugby legend he is, and a proud Cork Con man, as is his dad, John.
“I remember his first Irish cap and the first occasion he wore the famous British & Irish Lions colours. And he’s a great Munster captain. His achievements just keep coming and coming and maybe there will be more at this World Cup.
“My forever memory when I think of him is his visits to my room with the lads, on tour – the Barry’s Tea, the chats, the craic and the odd piece of cake. He was always in the middle of it with his laughter, his messing and his singing.
“I also remember a long, long time ago, having a bit of a tumble – I must have fallen over a snail that was trying to pass me by! He was first on the scene and really looked after me. He is such a kind person.
“I remember on the eve of the first Lions Test in Auckland (in 2017, when he was captain) seeing him talking to his dad in the lobby. I stared over with a glaze in my eyes thinking about the big day and how proud everyone from his club and province were.
“I last met him at his club when my team Terenure were there. We were just chatting away. I wish him well.”
This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Rugby World magazine.
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