Friday 18 October 2019

Malcolm O'Kelly: Challenge is to build a team in just a few weeks

Malcolm O'Kelly

I WAS picked for the Lions tours in 2001 and 2005, and I see it as the pinnacle of achievement as a player. You know that you are being picked from the best players in the four home nations – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

I was playing for Leinster and Ireland at the time. So it was a chance to move to a higher level.

The first time I was picked in 2001 I was rung up by the manager Donal Lenihan (Graham Henry was head coach). I was still quite immature as a player. So, perhaps I did not realise its full importance.

The second time I was picked, in 2005 for the tour of New Zealand, I really knew how significant it was. But I had to pull out before I played a match because of injury, and that was bitterly disappointing.

When the players are picked they are still finishing their seasons. They may be focussed on cup matches

It is when you get on the plane with the rest of the squad that you get the real feeling of excitement. Brian O'Driscoll, my Leinster teammate, was also in the squad.

Suddenly, players from different countries who have been bitter rivals in the Six Nations are thrown together.

You have to start afresh and build new friendships. We roomed with players from other countries, so we got to know them.

Warren Gatland, who was my coach for Ireland and is now the Lions coach, will be very conscious of the absolute importance of building a team quickly.

He will ensure that they are able to socialise, but it will not be like the tours in the 1970s when players went out on the tear. The problem is that when you go out these days you could be papped by the press wherever you go.

On our tour there wasn't that much socialising, but I am sure that Warren Gatland will do it differently. He will want to build a team ethos.

I am sure he picked some of the players because they are adaptable and fit in well with a team. The experience of players like Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell will be invaluable.

There was a great sense of pride in wearing the red jersey. The Lions enjoy enormous standing and prestige as they travel around.

When I played for the Lions Jonny Wilkinson was a star in the squad and was known as "Goldenballs".

I played a few matches on the tour, but I didn't make the test team for the matches against Australia, and that was a great disappointment.

But it was still very exciting travelling with the squad.

When we arrived in Brisbane for the first test and won the match it was as if a red army had invaded. There were a lot of Irish people following the Lions.

I am delighted for Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell that they are both in the squad, but I am surprised that neither of them is captain.

I am sure if Paul O'Connell had been fit through the season he would have had a chance of being captain of the squad.

Playing for the Lions is a fantastic opportunity for any player to show a bigger audience what they are capable of.

Malcolm O'Kelly played for Leinster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss