Saturday 5 November 2016. The All Black juggernaut rolls into Chicago. 18 wins on the trot and not a team in the world capable of matching their flair and intensity. Save perhaps the English who would go on to equal their unbeaten run the follwing spring. The Irish? If we couldnt do it in the last 111 years what had changed? A long injury list did not help the Irish cause with the likes of Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony sitting out. There is always a great sense of anticipation and hope here in Ireland when we go up against the All Blacks. A sense that maybe this is the time to break that 111 year duck. The Unstoppable force is about to meet an object which has never failed to be swept aside.
Eight months later and the headlines have been written, the duck broken and the greatest day in Irish Rugby history has been etched into the the minds of fans for evermore. Now, another Juggernaut bears down on its potential victims. This time, however, the roles have been somewhat reversed. On Saturday morning the All Blacks will welcome the British & Irish Lions to Auckland for the first of three tests.
Make no mistake I am not trying to say that this Lions team are anything resembling the all conquering, winning machine that was the All Blacks team who arrived in Chicago that day. The force of which I speak is not a team but one man amongst them. Peter O’Mahony.
O’Mahony did not feature in the Irish victory over the All Blacks in Chicago but he is the embodiement of the heart and spirit which the Irish players showed that day. His effect on this Lions tour has been undeniable. From the Irish bench to captaining the Lions against the All Blacks in a few short months it has been quite the journey for the Munster talisman. Barring the questionable injury to Jamie Heaslip in the Six Nations finale against England it was likely that he would miss the cut. A man of the match performance that day and a number of barnstorming games for Munster in the following weeks all but secured his seat on the plane.
Touted as a possible midweek captain by some there were whispers in various press outlets that O’Mahony might even have a crack at a spot in the matchday 23 for the first test in Auckland. A few weeks in and the team Warren Gatland was likely to pick started to become clear. His starting 15 against the Maori All Blacks confirmed in the minds of many that Gatland would plump for the Irish duo of O’Mahony and O’Brien at 6&7. Following 80 minutes of rugby there was little doubt. Captain for the day O’Mahony had been immense, forming a formidable back row with O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau. It was telling that when tour captain Sam Warburton entered the fray that the captaincy remained firmly in O’Mahony’s grasp.
All that remained was to wait for the squad announcement on wednesday night, which did indeed confirm that O’Mahony had indeed been granted the chance to do what many rugby players from these aisles scarcely dare to dream of. From Cork Con to Munster, to Ireland and now the Lions, he has always been a player who leads from the front. His actions on the pitch speak louder than any words ever could. He will take the game to the All Blacks on Saturday and in doing so will drag every other Lion on the pitch with him.
Eight months ago an unstoppable force was stopped in its tracks, this Saturday the game of rugby will pass judgement on another.