There’ll be no rabble-rousing speeches as Ireland’s Paul O’Connell basks in relaxed Lions build-up
The Munster man’s journey to Saturday’s first Test against Australia has been remarkable
Paul O’Connell shows off his hurling skills as the Lions continued their preparations for tomorrow’s first Test against Australia. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters
Even by the standards of his own recuperative powers, Paul O’Connell’s journey to Saturday’s first Test has been remarkable. Last November he ruled himself out of contention, and as recently as New Year’s Eve went under the knife to resolve a disc problem in his back which he had tried in vain to man manage, but with a little help from his Munster mates in securing a Heineken Cup quarter-final, he forced his way onto his third Lions tour.
But if you’d have got long odds on him making the cut last December or January, once selected, it’s been no surprise that O’Connell, with his force-of-nature personality, unyielding presence, physical strength and quality of his work, has established himself as an integral part of the Test team.
He is, he admits, in bonus territory and benefitting from, as well as revelling in, his experience of captaining the Lions four years ago. By all accounts he has been a leading orator in meeting rooms and dressing rooms (better even than four years ago) and the first Test finds him fresh and in great nick, save for not having a few more games under his belt. He is in a good place.
Looking back on his pronouncement last November, he admitted yesterday: “Probably I was trying to take a bit of pressure off as well. There had been a bit of focus for a while, even during the summer when I didn’t make the tour in the summer, I was half-thinking in the back of my mind it’s not the end of the world with the Lions tour next year: I can get a full pre-season and be in as good shape as I could.”
Sense of debt
After a game with the Munster As and Young Munster, a few more in the Rabo PRO12 would not have done it for him. Munster do owe him plenty, but for once the sense of debt is his.
“I was lucky to get back, I was lucky the Munster lads had hung in there and managed to stay in with a shout for the Heineken Cup so I got to play in those two big games against Harlequins and against Clermont, and also we had a big Rabo game against Leinster as well, which was probably the toughest of all the games I played. It was good to get back and play in those games and I’m delighted now to play in the Test team.”
Speaking to a cluster of journalists after training at the side of the beautifully-appointed, billiard-top, oval-shaped main ground after the Lions’ closed session in the Anglican Church Grammar School yesterday, it was hard to imagine him ever seeming more relaxed.
Freed of the onerous responsibilities of captaining the Lions, probably the heaviest mantle a player can ever experience and especially so for a man like O’Connell, ala Brian O’Driscoll four years ago he is clearly enjoying not being captain. Coupled with his relatively hopeless plight of six months ago, you put it to him that he is in bonus territory.
“Absolutely. People were talking about captaincy and things like that; I just wanted to be on the plane. Absolutely in bonus territory. I’ve really enjoyed it, really enjoyed not being captain in some ways and being able to relax and worry about my own game,” he says with a smile.
“We defend differently here, we attack differently, the lineouts are a lot different to what I’m used to, the way we call them and things, so there’s been a lot of work that I’ve had to do on my own and I’ve enjoyed being able to do that without having to worry about the captaincy.”
He has sympathy for Sam Warburton, but also respect for his skipper, and perhaps even a little envy of the captain’s more relaxed approach to the role. “Yea, it’s not easy. For some reason there’s massive focus on the captaincy of the Lions. It’s talked about a lot and it’s given a lot of focus so it’s not an easy role at all, especially when there’s so many column inches given to it and your family is reading it, and you’re reading a little bit as well; so yea, we’re trying to support him as much as we can.
‘Cool confident fella’
“But he’s a very calm, cool confident fella and I don’t think a whole lot bothers him. He worries at lot about his own performance, he makes sure he gets that right and he kinda leads from the front on the pitch, and that’s the main thing you do as a captain I think.”
He denied that he would be making any rabble-rousing speech, but no doubt he’ll say something and it will come with experience as well as feeling. “Look, there’ll be plenty of us who will have plenty to say but it’s been said. I said it last week and it’s actually been a very quiet tour, with a lot of guys really working on their own game, looking after their own game and making sure they’ve produced the best they can for the team. We were saying a couple of weeks ago that the dressing room is a lot quieter than what I’d be used to, but it’s been really enjoyable as well.
“We double check things all during the week and come game day it tends to be a nice quiet build-up. There’s no barking and shouting; we just build up quietly and it’s worked really well for us so far. Obviously on Tuesday we didn’t play the best that we would have liked, but a lot of the stuff we’ve been trying to do we’ve done really well in the games leading up to that and I don’t see any reason to change.”
His parents, his wife-to-be this summer, Emily, and his son Paddy are all here, ahead of his summer marriage. “She’s (Emily) most of it done at this stage now.” He admits, smiling, that Jonny Sexton is altogether more conscientious: “I see him on the computer a lot, e-mailing. He’s high on the detail of the wedding at the moment.”
O’Connell is in a good place.