One of the opinions that has surprised the Mole during the season to date is that Peter O’Mahony isn’t a number 8. It’s not universal but it’s quite widespread and runs contradictory to my own beliefs.
We inducted Zinzan Brooke into the DM Hall of Fame during the summer. Unfortunately Zinny couldn’t make the ceremony, but we thought he’d be honoured if a little surprised not to be first in. One of the facts that came to light when reviewing Zinny’s career was that he owed his selection for the 87 RWC to the fact that he could cover all back row positions. He made his debut against Argentina at no 7 and occasionally resumed the role during his international career. He also toured as a 6 with the NZ Maori and Buck Shelford considered that his best position but he would say that, wouldn’t he.
The Mole’s top three eights in the world at the moment are Kieran Read, Harinordoquy and Parisse. Each is a very good handler, a lineout option, a ball carrying threat and an intelligent footballer. As part of the spine of the team, the number eight has the opportunity to get his hands on the ball quite frequently and is able to adopt a more flexible approach to defence than either of his back row colleagues. Another Mole favourite is Nick Easter, surplus to requirements for England after an ill-considered toilet gag, but central to the success of Harlequins.
Reviewing O’Mahony’s skill set, it seems that eight is the position that gives greatest rein to his abilities. His passing ability betrays time spent at outhalf during his schooldays while his athleticism and physique make him a decent lineout threat. The fact that he might throw a well timed pass buys him some time against defences and adds to his threat as a running option, particularly out wide, where Rob Penney is keen to deploy his forwards.
Nonetheless, a lot of judges consider O’Mahony’s future lies elsewhere, and the first port of call is as a six. Six and eight are often classed together but I’m not so sure about that one. Going through the list of names above, Read and Easter are only ever considered as eights while the influence of Parisse and Harinordoquy is dimmed when selected on the flank. The best sixes that spring to mind are men like Richard Hill, Ruben Kruger, Thierry Dusatoir while in the last RWC Jerome Kaino performed excellently throughout for NZ. Each of these guys could be considered at eight but it would compromise their impact on behalf of the team.
What’s required of a top class six then? The ability to make hard yards, clean up the bits and pieces close to the breakdown and act as the captain of the defence. In a nut shell, the six’s job is concerned with slow ball: turning crappy ball into something more usable for his own team by running good angles in close and creating crappy ball for the opposition by tackling, rucking and competing at lineout time.
Can O’Mahony fulfil this role? Yes, with questions marks over his tackling ability on one shoulder but I think his ball handling ability is somewhat wasted by asking him to truck up a lot of dross around the fringes and off the out half’s shoulder. Now, [adopts George Hook-esque nasal whine] the thing is, O’Mahony hasn’t played any six this season as Rob Penney has started him at eight in three games and as a seven against Zebre.
Is O’Mahony a seven? Not at the moment but he looks set to be selected there for Ireland in the forthcoming round of games. His sole selection as a seven for Munster owes more to Declan Kidney’s all encompassing and intrusive powers than as a part of Rob Penney’s bigger picture. Penney has preferred Sean Dougall and Niall Ronan at seven ahead of O’Mahony this season. Think about that a bit. Penney sees him every day and has Dave O’Callaghan, Paddy Butler and James Couhglin available at six and eight with CJ Stander to arrive. In other words, he’s fairly well served there. If he considered O’Mahony an openside, he’d pick him there and work on developing his first choice back row.
What does a seven need and why is it so sexy? The main thing required for a seven is a preternatural ability to sniff running lines and read the game. That leads to tackles, turnovers and counterattacks. A good seven is a bit like a defensive midfielder: always available to take and give a simple pass, constantly breaking up the opposition’s rhythm and capable of creating counterattacking opportunities. Richie McCaw, David Pocock and Justin Tipuric are best of breed at the moment and all have an immense impact for their team.
The ability to sniff lines and snuff out attacks must be honed which is why I am highly sceptical about a non-specialist being selected in this position. Almost every player needs a champion, often their coach, who believes that they are the right man for the job. Declan Kidney seems much taken by O’Mahony but I fear that this ardour is not in the former Pres Cork schoolboy’s best interests. Playing for Ireland this autumn will be a stressful undertaking. The 60-0 embarrassment of Hamilton is still fresh in the minds of many and cold November afternoons watching the puke ball played by the Saffers, the Argies and Ireland will not warm supporters’ hearts like the flourishes of spring.
Add the arrival of CJ Stander to the mix and we have an interesting cocktail. Stander has been signed as a project player which, in a week when Strauss and Bent have been added to the Irish squad, is tainted by the suspicion that the title is being used as a flag of convenience. Stander captained the Bok u20 team as a number 8 in 2010. His arrival increases the competition in the Munster back row and is sure to concentrate the mind of Peter O’Mahony. Versatility is a boon to a young player but can become a curse if the reputation is never shed.
Zinzan Brooke owed his RWC medal to his versatility but he knew that if he wanted to be the All Black he believed he could be, it would be as a number eight. With Munster in transition (still), new leaders will be required and O’Mahony has been earmarked for this role. He’ll have to nail down a position for himself in order to assume the mantle and that looks likely to compromise his international prospects for the time being.
Taking a longer term view, this would be no bad thing for either O’Mahony or Ireland. Kidney’s selection policy has consistently been short sighted and Ireland’s next challenge always seems it’s most serious, with the consequence that the team has lurched between triumph and disaster with little sign of development. Ireland’s lack of depth in certain positions is now apparent. Our best players should be encouraged to play at their best. The rest, then, should take care of itself.