Sunday 22 October 2017

Can Lions replace the irreplaceable O'Connell?

Paul O’Connell was forced to face up to the realisation that his Lions tour is over at yesterday’s Captain’s Run
Paul O’Connell was forced to face up to the realisation that his Lions tour is over at yesterday’s Captain’s Run
Conor George

Conor George

THE euphoria of Saturday's first Test win was scarcely given time to seep into the extremities before being replaced by the dull ache of disaster.

Paul O'Connell is more than just another player. His loss can be measured by dint of the fact he is not being replaced by the tourists.

Warren Gatland has been quick to call additions into the Lions squad. The roster – discounting O'Connell – now stands at 43 following Tom Court's inclusion as cover for Alex Corbisiero, who was himself a late arrival to the party.

That he isn't calling up another second-row is testament to O'Connell's excellence. You cannot replace the irreplaceable. What's the point in even trying?

O'Connell will have been enthused in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's Test win. The standard of the team performance was not great – as Brian O'Driscoll said in the post-game huddle – but for O'Connell it represented just a second Test victory.

The win was also the first time in his three tours that the Lions had control of the series. The sound of the final whistle would have brought a huge sense of relief, a huge release of tension and emotion.

PUNCHED

It is probable O'Connell didn't realise the extent of the damage in the immediate aftermath of the victory. Adrenalin would have blunted the pain. Once the X-ray confirmed the worst, the realisation that there was a downside to Saturday's win will have punched a hole in the pit of his stomach.

The personal catastrophe for O'Connell should not be overlooked. He has, as he explained last week, been looking forward to this Lions tour since before last summer.

"When I was ruled out of Ireland's summer tour (to New Zealand) it was always in the back of my mind that the Lions tour was coming up," he revealed after the game against the Waratahs.

And it was the thought of playing and winning this series – his last Lions experience – that helped keep him motivated after undergoing surgery on his back on New Year's Eve.

"I always felt that if I could get back early enough I'd be in with a chance of making the tour," he said.

It is no consolation to O'Connell that he was magnificent on Saturday and that his Lions Test career has been brought to an end on a victorious note. This tour was all about playing in a winning series, not one Test match.

For the collective his loss is an unmitigated disaster. They have lost one of the pillars of their team at a time when they need him most. Australia will be better next Saturday, of that you can be guaranteed.

It is never too comforting to have to look beyond an obvious first-choice player – especially having to do so in the hope that those left in his stead can negate the influence of someone as outstanding as Australian captain James Horwill.

O'Connell's enforced absence has swung the advantage to Australia for the second Test and, indeed, the series.

Yes, Paul O'Connell is that valuable and is that big a loss.

LINE-OUT

O'Connell is a master tactician in this area. The Lions have endured problems in this part of their game when he hasn't been playing. When he has played they have had a near-perfect return out of touch. Indeed, they were 12 from 12 on Saturday.

It's not just his own outstanding ability in the air that makes him so valuable. He is the line-out operator and is not afraid to be the decoy while calling throws to other players. Tom Croft, Jamie Heaslip and Alun-Wyn Jones all received throws on Saturday.

Horwill is an excellent line-out jumper, while blindside flanker Ben Mowen is the technician. Australia were happy to let the Lions throw uncontested to the front of the line on Saturday because it meant O'Connell wasn't the target and this was to their advantage.

You can be guaranteed they will pressurise every Tom Youngs throw in Melbourne because they won't worry as much about the Lions throwing to the middle or the tail in O'Connell's absence.

LEADERSHIP

No matter who is wearing the captain's armband, O'Connell is the man who has been calling the shots in the pack. If you watched the games closely it was evident that the players were turning to O'Connell and O'Driscoll for direction.

O'Connell has a physical presence that commands respect and, crucially, he leads by example through his on-field actions. It is not fanciful to suggest that he is the team's equivalent of a security blanket.

No matter the obstacle it never seems as imposing as when O'Connell is there to lead them.

He and O'Driscoll have been in the background driving this tour. Both have captained the side on occasion and, as Warburton confirmed, O'Connell has been a shoulder the official tour captain has not been shy to lean on.

BREAKDOWN

The fear at this stage is that the referees are not going to allow a contest at the breakdown. O'Connell has been consistently effecting three and four turnovers every game. He has a phenomenal strength that allows him to keep his feet when dominating the tackled player and the Lions have been reaping the benefits.

When he does go to ground in contact the ball is always presented well for the scrum-half, which allows for quick ball to be recycled. The Lions don't have a player with comparable ability in this area.

PRESENCE

Graham Rowntree alluded to it when he said that, while being careful not to overshadow captain Warburton, the Irishman was an important authoritative presence.

"Paul is hugely influential," said Rowntree. "In what he does, in what he says and in how he carries himself, he's been a huge pillar for this team. It's just his presence that is so effective – aside from the fact that he's one of the best players in the world."

Irish Independent

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