PAUL O'CONNELL was hailed as "one of the best" after injury effectively ended his British and Irish Lions career in a cruel and premature fashion.
O'Connell, who will be 37 when the Lions tour New Zealand in 2017, broke his arm during Saturday's thrilling first Test victory over Australia at Suncorp Stadium.
While he will not play again Down Under, missing the second and third Tests, towering Ireland lock O'Connell could stay on in a supporting role. He attended yesterday's final training session before the Lions tackle the Melbourne Rebels today.
"He is one of the best, and he's in the form of his life as well," Lions assistant coach and forwards specialist Graham Rowntree said.
"He came into selection quite late because he had been out for so long with injuries during the season. Suddenly, he came back on the radar after that game (for Munster) against Harlequins in the European Cup. He was fit. In fact, I don't think he's ever been fitter.
"But you have got to get on with these things, which is why we brought so many players.
"Whether he is going to stay I am not sure yet. I would like him to because of the influence he has around the group. We will find out in the next four or five days what he is going to do.
"Losing someone like Paul galvanises a squad like us. We are a very tight group." Asked if there was a case of siege mentality, Rowntree replied: "Yes."
England lock Geoff Parling, who had been due to captain the Lions today, has been withdrawn from that game and should line up as Alun-Wyn Jones' Test second-row partner at Etihad Stadium next weekend.
"I am not going to try and lie there," Rowntree added. "Geoff is our next lineout caller, he has been doing very well coming off the bench and has taken his chance when he has started for us as well.
"He has been exceptional for England, but Geoff is more than just a lineout forward. He's a very clever footballer, a good ball carrier, his work-rate involvement is very high and he is getting better and better, but he has got to in a squad like this one."
While Rowntree positively gushed about O'Connell, he was less responsive on the decision not to hand Australia captain James Horwill a ban.
Horwill was cited for allegedly stamping on Jones early in the first Test. Television replays showed his boot making contact with the Welshman's face.
Lions chiefs referred the incident to the match citing officer, but Horwill was cleared following a disciplinary hearing in Melbourne.
"It has happened, we move on," Rowntree added. "What can you say? You can't change anything, we just have to get on with it."
Then quizzed on whether he thought the International Rugby Board could ask for the decision to be reviewed, he added: "Ask me another question. I've got nothing else to say on that.
"It's not a talking point within the group any more. We are looking forward. It has been dealt with, let's move on."
While the Lions have already lost O'Connell, they are also awaiting further news on prop Alex Corbisiero, who is battling to overcome a calf muscle problem. It is uncertain at this stage whether or not he will be fit for next weekend.
"We will know more in the next 24-48 hours," Rowntree said. "He played very well on Saturday. He stepped up to the challenge very well and was very accurate in everything he did.
"It (losing Corbisiero) would be a big blow, but it would be another test for the strength in depth that we've got in the squad. So far, that strength in depth hasn't let us down."
After the highs of Brisbane, O'Connell's injury and the Horwill verdict have possibly returned matters to a level playing field, although Australia last night confirmed that backs Digby Ioane and Pat McCabe had suffered series-ending injuries.
"We are very mindful of training volumes. I can only attribute it (Lions injuries) to the intensity of the opposition," Rowntree added.
"We've been very accurate with our training. We have a lot of GPS data and heart-rate data. We very much train in short, intense sessions, so it's not from over-training.
"Such is the feeling and culture we have within the group, it will definitely bring us together. 'Gats' (head coach Warren Gatland) spoke to the lads three times (yesterday) about this weekend, how we've got to lift another couple of gears.
"I thought we deserved that victory last weekend, but our intensity and accuracy have to go up another couple of gears, and I'm pretty confident we can do that."