Why stats undersell Peter O’Mahony’s defensive abilities

Peter O'Mahony

Peter O’Mahony is a fan favourite among Munster and Ireland supporters, and it’s easy to see why after giving so much to his province and country for so long.

The Munster captain is 32 years old, but he seems be playing better than ever, with his man of the match-winning performance against Toulouse recently ranking among his best ever games.

O’Mahony is hard to miss in a lot of matches he plays, as he consistently comes up with big steals at both the ruck and in the line out, which can go a long way in deciding games.

However, if you’re a fellow statistics nerd that loves to pore over how many carries, tackles and metres players make in any given game, you’ll notice that O’Mahony rarely ranks among the best players on his team, by those metrics at least.

Back row players are often the busiest defenders on the pitch.

O’Mahony is a flanker of course, and players in the back row often top the statistics charts when it comes to carries and tackles, although the Cork man rarely does so.

For example, in the aforementioned game against Toulouse in which O’Mahony picked up the man of the match award, the Munster captain made three carries and nine tackles.

Five starting Munster players made more tackles than O’Mahony at the Aviva Stadium. Fellow back-row players Jack O’Donoghue and Alex Kendellen topped the charts, with 15 and 13 respectively. Both also made significantly more carries than their captain.

O’Donoghue and Kendellen played 100 minutes against Toulouse, while O’Mahony played 63 minutes, although the 20 minutes of extra-time were pretty low on action, with plenty of kicking and set-pieces taking place.

While playing fewer minutes than his fellow back row players obviously has an effect on how O’Mahony’s stats compare, it is common for the Munster captain to make fewer tackles than his peers.

In the second leg of Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup last 16 fixture against Exeter Chiefs, O’Mahony made 14 tackles, an impressive tally. However, five of Munster’s forwards made more tackles on a busy day in defence for the province, as Exeter enjoyed 61 per cent of possession.

O’Donoghue again topped the tackle charts that day with 23, prop John Ryan came up with 20, while flanker John Hodnett made 18.

A similar trend shows up in international rugby, with O’Mahony making a total of 31 tackles in four games he started for Ireland in the past year. In each of those games, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris started alongside him in the back row.

Van der Flier made 34 tackles while Doris made 37 tackles in those four games, which were against England, Italy, Argentina and Japan. It should be noted that those numbers are lower than average for the Leinster pair, as in their four last starts for Ireland, Van der flier made 44 tackles and Doris made 43.

So while back row players are usually expected to make more tackles than any other position, the same isn’t expected of O’Mahony, and there’s a very good reason for that.

Peter O’Mahony is Ireland and Munster’s greatest jackal threat.

The reason why O’Mahony tends to make less tackles than his fellow back row players is because he is both Ireland’s and Munster’s greatest jackal threat.

For those not in the know, jackling is when a defender wins a turnover by taking the ball from a tackled opposition player. The tackled player must release the ball on the ground and is penalised when they don’t, which is more often the case.

O’Mahony won four turnovers against Toulouse, which ended attacking opportunities for the French side on each occasion and in turn, kept Munster in the match against their frankly more talented opposition.

The best jackling opportunities present themselves when an opposition player is brought down right in front of the would-be jackal, who can then try to steal the ball before attacking players come in to clear out the ruck.

In order to get those opportunities on a regular basis, the jackal must sometimes wait behind the defensive line, trust their teammates to make the tackle and then pounce on the unprotected player on the ground.

This means that the jackal has fewer opportunities to make tackles as they are sniffing out a turnover, which have a far greater effect on a game than any one tackle on average.

While O’Mahony isn’t the only player for either Munster or Ireland who is able to win turnovers, he is the best at it and is therefore often the designated jackal.

Winning turnovers may not be the flashiest part of the game but they are massively important, with two of the game’s greatest ever players; Richie McCaw and David Pocock, specialising in that area.

Even if the jackal doesn’t manage to win the ball, they can often slow down the ruck (something which isn’t accounted for in statistics) which allows their teammates to get set defensively and prevent a try-scoring opportunity.

O’Mahony doesn’t always win several turnovers in a game, as it can be extremely hard to do so if a team focuses on ball retention over having numerous attacking options by flooding the ruck, but he does so more than any other player in Ireland, which both explains and makes up for the relative lack of tackles he makes compared to other players in the back row.

His added tally of tackles and turnovers doesn’t add up to that of his peers, but he consistently comes up with big moments that go a long way in deciding the outcome of games.

While it doesn’t prevent him from making tackles in the same way that jackling does, O’Mahony also regularly comes up with steals at the line out, which prevents prime opportunities for rolling mauls and other set-piece plays.

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