Lions Tour 2013: O’Connell happy to be on plane to Australia

14:15 31 May 2013

British and Irish Lions

British and Irish Lions' Paul O'Connell during a training session at the Hong Kong Stadium, Hong Kong. Picture: David Davies/PA Wire

PA Wire/Press Association Images

While bookmakers were busy installing Paul O’Connell as favourite to lead the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour, the Ireland lock was plagued by doubt over his selection for Australia.

A season blighted by injury saw him spend most of the campaign recovering from major back surgery and it has been over a year since he has been able to add to his 85 caps.

Confronted with little time to press his Lions claims, he produced an epic display for the Munster in their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Harlequins.

On the strength of that performance alone he overtook Sam Warburton, Brian O’Driscoll and Chris Robshaw in the betting to reprise the captaincy role he filled with distinction in 2009.

But after hearing his name among the 37 read out by head coach Warren Gatland on April 30, the 33-year-old was merely relieved to be involved at all.

“Right up until selection I didn’t know if I’d be picked having not played any international rugby since last March and very little rugby since the previous May,” he said.

“It was hard to know if they’d even consider me. I hadn’t spoken to Warren or anyone during that time.

“People asked me would I have been disappointed if I hadn’t been selected, but I wouldn’t because I got back from a fairly serious injury as quickly as I could and played as well as I could.

“So when you give everything you have and come up short, that’s just the way it is. There’s no point in complaining about it.

“There was so much speculation about this tour. In the Six Nations someone would play a good game one week and they’d have pencilled themselves in for the tour, they’d play badly the following week and have written themselves off, then they’d play well the next week and pencilled themselves in for captaincy.

“So I tried to avoid the speculation as much as I could, it’s something that probably does you no good following it too closely.

“As captain there’s a little bit more pressure on you, wary of what’s going on. Six months or even three months ago I didn’t think I’d be here.

“It’s all a bonus for me and I’m probably a lot more relaxed than I was four years ago.”

At 24, Warburton is the youngest Lions captain for 58 years, but O’Connell denies age will be an obstacle to him excelling in the post and has pledged his full support to the Wales openside.

“It’s important that he knows myself, Brian O’Driscoll and all of the senior players are there for him,” he said.

“But having spent a week with him it seems to me he’ll be perfectly fine. He’s a very relaxed guy and confident in his own ability.

“He’s been very successful with Wales and it’s important we back him as much as we can, but I don’t think he’ll need a whole lot of it.

“I was 25 on the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand and was probably a lot more naive than Sam. He’s quite a wise guy, wise beyond his years.”

The Lions endured a heroic Test series defeat in South Africa four years ago and despite that painful outcome, the tour was considered a success.

It contrasted markedly with 2005, the first of O’Connell’s previous two campaigns among the elite of British and Irish rugby in which Sir Clive Woodward’s bloated squad was overwhelmed by New Zealand.

The experiences have prepared the Ireland lock for what lies in wait in Australia over the coming weeks.

“There are going to be some very tough times on the tour and it’s important for us to maintain our belief in the talent we have,” he said.

“There will be tough times when we will be criticised and when we feel we’re not performing to the best of our ability, that’s when it’s important that you can maintain belief.”

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