Peter O’Mahony is fast emerging as the surprise frontrunner to lead the British & Irish Lions in Saturday’s first Test against New Zealand. The Irish back-row forward captained the touring side to victory over the NZ Maori last weekend and the management say they have no qualms about him leading the Lions out at Eden Park.
O’Mahony’s name is in the frame because Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones, both previous Lions Test captains, are struggling to make the starting XV. The other two midweek Lions captains on this tour, Ken Owens and Rory Best, have also been overtaken at hooker by Jamie George, leaving O’Mahony and Owen Farrell as the next two realistic candidates for the role.
The 27-year-old O’Mahony has much more captaincy experience than the Saracens’ fly-half, having led Ireland at age-group level and Munster on numerous occasions since 2011.
The assistant coach Andy Farrell has also given the clearest of hints the management would be content for the Munster flanker to stay in charge for the Auckland match.
“I’d be more than comfortable,” said Farrell. “To be honest, it’d be the easiest team to captain because there are so many leaders. The guys who have captained so far have realised they don’t have to be vocal all the time because there are always people helping them out. I think the balance has been great so far.”
O’Mahony also captained Ireland to wins over the United States and Canada in 2013 and has won 40 caps for his country. He secured his tour place with an excellent performance in Ireland’s Six Nations win over England in Dublin in March and has clearly impressed the Lions’ management. “He’s one of those players you watch, then you watch again and see the significance he has on a game,” said the forwards coach, Steve Borthwick. “He does the things that need to be done but aren’t necessarily spectacular. He’s a quiet man but when he speaks people listen. I’ve been hugely impressed by him as a player and as a leader.”
Gatland made clear when he appointed Warburton as tour captain that it did not necessarily guarantee the Welshman a starting Test place. A strained ankle in the opening match here has restricted Warburton’s playing opportunities but he is in line to feature in the first Test off the bench. “Sam, by his own admission, will tell you he might have been a little rusty at the start but he’s getting better and better every day,” said Farrell.
In Australia four years ago the Lions also ended up using two different Test captains, with Jones leading the side in the series-clinching third Test victory in Sydney. Leigh Halfpenny, meanwhile, is continuing to go through the required return-to-play protocols after taking a bang to the head against the Maori but Farrell says the Wales full-back remains on course to face the All Blacks.
The fly-half Owen Farrell is also expected to be fit after a thigh concern, leaving the Lions approaching full strength for the Test series opener. “We don’t see too much of a problem with that for Leigh, it’s just the process we have to go through,” said Andy Farrell. “And Owen seems to be all good; that seems to have settled down.”
Farrell also suggested the Lions squad was coming together at the right time before the first Test. “Look at our squad, the All Blacks are the best team in the world and rightly so, they’re an unbelievable side,” he said. “ But our squad is full of winners, it’s full of guys who are used to winning and know how to win.
“The strength of the collective group is going to be phenomenal. Let’s see what we can do when we bring that togetherness.”