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British and Irish Lions 2017: Peter O'Mahony, a seasoned captain preparing to lead again in biggest game of his life

The Independent logo The Independent 24/06/2017

© Provided by Independent Print Limited You would have received good odds on backing Peter O’Mahony and not Sam Warburton to lead out the British and Irish Lions in their first Test against the All Blacks, but on Saturday that’s exactly what the thousands of Lions fans here in Auckland will see at Eden Park.

Warburton was deemed to have not played enough rugby since injuring his knee at the start of April to take a place in the starting line-up, with the form of Sean O’Brien and the leadership of O’Mahony convincing Warren Gatland that he had a sufficient back-up plan to leave out his tour captain.

The Lions are not shy of a leader or two. O’Mahony will join Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones in the starting XV with Warburton among a replacements list that also includes the Scarlets captain Ken Owens, while Ireland and Scotland skippers Rory Best and Greig Laidlaw are among those squad players who will not feature on Saturday.

Yet what is it that makes O’Mahony the right man to lead the Lions in Warburton’s absence? Four years ago ahead of the decisive third Test against Australia, Gatland trusted Jones to lead his side, and that was thought to be the case again this year until Warburton rediscovered his best form in the Six Nations. But one other player also got back to his best on the final weekend of that championship, with O’Mahony’s man of the match display against England putting him right back in the frame for Lions selection. Now, he is the team captain, but that hasn’t changed him one bit.

“I’ve known Pete for years and years, and it’s really refreshing to see that it hasn’t changed him at all,” his Ireland and Lions teammate, Conor Murray, said on Friday. “He hasn’t tried to be a different person since he’s been named captain. He’s just gone about rugby the way he usually does. He’s a guy who, when he speaks, people listen to him.

“His messages are thought out and they’re clear. They have meaning behind them. He doesn’t talk all the time. He talks when it’s needed, and people respond to that.”

“Then playing-wise, you’ve seen it for years. He’s a hard player, he will try his best to lead by what he does on the pitch and people are going to follow him.”

“I’m delighted for him. I’m delighted for him and his family. It’s a massive thing for him, and I think he’s itching to get out there now and play for the Lions in a Test game.”

O’Mahony has captained every team that he has played in, with the flanker adding the Lions accolade to his feats of leading Munster and, in 2013, Ireland. He has clearly impressed his teammates as well as his coaches, and yet there is something of Warburton about his approach.

Compare Warburton and Jones. The former is known for leading by example, letting his performances do the talking and, when needed, communicating with the referee in a calm and informed manner that helps to bring the match official onto his side and see his way of thinking. Jones, on the other hand, is a booming voice heard both in the changing room before matches and on the field during them. He is an inspirational figure who wears his heart on his sleeve, and he is not afraid to say it how it is if things go against him.

omahony-2.jpg © Provided by Independent Print Limited omahony-2.jpg O’Mahony is certainly of the Warburton school of captaincy, as Rob Howley has noted over the last three weeks.

“Peter's led particularly well,” noted assistant coach Howley. “When you look at Lions tours, playing alongside players from different countries, there are leaders who lead in the shadows, who are very quiet, honest and lead by actions, and then there's others who lead by words.

“Peter's a very quiet person, but his respect within the group, he just leads through actions. He brings a calming nature to the group, and also there are other leaders in the group who lead by words.

“There's a really good blend. There's a lot of leadership and different leaders lead in different ways.

“Peter goes about his way in his own way, and I quite like it. He's not at the forefront but he's there having a chat, the one-on-ones, and that's important, because he gives other players confidence. And he's certainly done that this week.”

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