British and Irish Lions: Captain Peter O'Mahony wants to pay back Paul O'Connell against Maori All Blacks

O'Mahony's chances of selection for this tour looked bleak all but a few months ago. Now, he finds himself captaining the Lions

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The Independent Online

Peter O’Mahony will hope to pay back Paul O’Connell when he follows in his footsteps this weekend by captaining the British and Irish Lions against the Maori All Blacks, and admitted that his injury nightmare last year led him to believe he would not even make the squad for the tour of New Zealand.

The Irishman will emulate O’Connell in captaining Munster, Ireland and now the Lions when he takes to the field at the International Stadium in Rotorua on Saturday, and he firmly put himself in the Test picture with an influential performance in last week’s victory over the Crusaders.

Another strong showing will likely cement his place against the All Blacks as blindside flanker. Taulupe Faletau looks nailed on to take the No 8 role providing he stays fit, and it looks as though the pair will be joined by Sam Warburton, though the tour captain is named on the replacements’ bench for this weekend’s encounter as Sean O’Brien starts.

Head coach Warren Gatland’s decision to name O’Mahony as captain in such an important match – a game commonly referred to as the “unofficial fourth Test” – means so much more to the 27–year-old given that he missed a full year of rugby and had not made it back into the Ireland squad ahead of the Six Nations clash against England in March. A lucky break then came his way, with Jamie Heaslip getting injured in the warm-up. O’Mahony started and went on to claim the man-of-the-match award.

“I didn't think I was going to get picked for the Lions, I didn't think I had played enough rugby before then,” O’Mahony said on Thursday.

“I don't know if that was a fairy tale. I have put a lot of hard work into my career and you have got to take your opportunities when they come. Sometimes they are unfortunate for other guys but it doesn't matter, you have to be selfish. I use that word... it is not a selfish game but sometimes you have to play well when you need to play well and that day I played all right.

“It wasn't just that day, I would like to say I have played some good games for Munster as well this season. I went through a lot - even the days when we lost, you have got to take your lessons. It wasn't just that day, there was a lot of hard work going in to that not just over the last 12 months but the last few years.”

The Lions will be in good hands with O’Mahony at the helm, and Gatland would not rule out the possibility of him leading the Test side if Warburton fails to oust Sean O’Brien and regain the openside flanker role.

But for O’Mahony himself, he believes that Gatland’s display of faith in him is testament to the inspiring figures he has learned from with both Munster and Ireland. The flanker was keen to pay tribute to them all by delivering a strong showing on Saturday, both as a player and as a captain.

O'Mahony impressed in the win over Crusaders (Getty)

“Obviously, O'Connell was hugely influential on my career,” he said. “I'm playing with him probably since I started with Munster. He was involved in nearly all of the games I've played with Munster and Ireland and he'd a huge influence.

“Drico [Brian O’Driscoll] was still there when I was playing with Ireland as well, I could name lots more. Growing up, the Munster back-rowers even when I was playing - Wally [Paul Wallace] and Axel [Anthony Foley] had a huge influence on my career as well.

“It's a way maybe of paying them back for the hard work they p`ut into me.”

Warburton looks likely to be selected to lead the side in next Saturday’s first Test against the All Blacks, with the tour captain poised to come on against the Maori All Blacks and add to the 135 minutes of rugby he has played over the last nine weeks. But should he lose out to O’Brien, Gatland does have options to lead the side. O’Mahony would certainly be one of those, along with Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones, but the Munster forward will not allow his mind to wander beyond this weekend’s match.

“I was told about two hours ago and I need to get that sunk in first,” O’Mahony said. ”I will worry about our performance on Saturday that is the main thing.“

“The way Lions tours go, guys get opportunities, you might get one or two or you might get three. This is my third game I have been involved and this is my opportunity. This is my third time that I get a chance to show what I can do and that is what I am worried about.

“If you get your job right this weekend and you play well and the other 14 guys who are on the time play well we are going to be difficult to stop with the calibre of player we have got.“