Tuesday 16 January 2018

It's about time we produced the goods – O'Connell

Paul O’Connell gets in a bit of hurling practice during the Lions training session in Brisbane yesterday ahead of the first test
Paul O’Connell gets in a bit of hurling practice during the Lions training session in Brisbane yesterday ahead of the first test
Conor George

Conor George

The image conveyed more than words ever could. Paul O'Connell stood exultantly in the middle of the pitch, raised his right arm and extended his index finger to the sky as he saluted Munster's Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Harlequins.

His Munster team-mates danced about as they expressed their joy and relief in their own individual ways but for O'Connell, this was special; this was his finest hour.

He had just produced an individual performance of unrelenting excellence, one that matched any of his many previous spectacular contributions to Munster's and Ireland's cause.

And by doing so before the watching Warren Gatland, he had confirmed his extraordinary return to fitness after debilitating injuries to ensure selection for his third Lions tour.

There is a sequence of photographs taken after the final whistle featuring O'Connell that perfectly capture the range of emotions he went through after that game, possibly his finest hour in the famous fire-engine red uniform.

There's the one of him disappearing down the tunnel saluting the crowd with a raised left hand; there's one with him giving the thumbs up; and there's the one of his 'Hellboy' impression – lower lip extended with the right fist clenched and punching the air.

Seminal

That was a seminal moment in O'Connell's season and his career. When it is remembered that it was only the seventh game of his season and just his fifth of 2013, the outpouring of emotion at the Stoop that afternoon was understandable.

Six months after O'Connell wrote off his chances of making the Lions tour, he will play in his seventh consecutive Test. Since captaining the tourists to victory in the final Test against South Africa four years ago, the talismanic second-row has endured the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.

Ankle, groin, knee (twice) and back injuries conspired to rob him of large chunks of each of the four seasons since the final Test in Johannesburg. Indeed, he lost nine months of his career because of his groin injury and another six with his back.

He always hoped that he might make the Lions tour even after he dismissed his chances of doing so – "I was trying to relieve the pressure a little bit but I always felt that if I got back playing I was in with a chance of being selected" – and acknowledged he owes a debt of gratitude to his Munster team-mates for making it so.

"I was lucky to get back so quickly from the back operation," he said yesterday. "And 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.

"I was grateful to the boys for producing the big performance in January against Racing Metro in the pool stage of the Heineken Cup to get the bonus point to get us into those games the Lions selectors were watching.

"We also we had a big Rabo game against Leinster, which was probably the toughest of all the games I played in, before the team announcement. It was good to get back and play in those games and I'm delighted now to play in the Test team."

O'Connell's easy demeanour at the Lions training base at the Churchie Anglican Grammar School in east Brisbane yesterday belied a nervousness he maintains he had up until the team announcement confirmed his inclusion.

"You're always nervous," he insisted. "A few of us trained together on Tuesday so we probably had an idea then but you never know until your name is read out."

O'Connell is still sporting a fat eyebrow and nest of stitches above his right eye this week, leftovers from his exertions against the Waratahs last Saturday. That little annoyance will be healed by the time the Lions race on to the pitch against Australia.

The contest between the opposing second-rows tomorrow represents one of the most exciting match-ups of a game that is rich in potential.

O'Connell, one of the most talented locks in the world, and Alun Wyn Jones going head-to-head with the teak-tough James Horwill and the exciting Kane Douglas should be fascinating.

Douglas is a monster. He stands at over 6ft 7ins and weighs nearly 20 stone. He has been selected to offer some quality heft to the Australian side and, presumably, to challenge the Lions at the breakdown.

"They're two excellent second-rows," said O'Connell. "They're very tough guys and are hard to maul against. They're also good at the breakdown, really tight defensively and will make life very difficult for us."

This will be O'Connell's last Lions tour. He'll be long retired in 2017, when they travel to New Zealand. After just one win out of six Tests played and no series victory, the days of his being happy to 'just take part' are long gone.

"From a Lions point of view, we certainly need to produce something and win a series," he said.

"On Saturday, we'll be trying to make sure we continue the way we have been and make sure guys produce the best they can individually across the pitch. A lot of guys have shown some really good form on the tour and I think we need to continue that.

"The pressure is on to start the series with a win. But there is always pressure in big games – it's no different than what it normally is for a big game with your country or a big Heineken Cup game with your province. Pressure is pressure."

Neither O'Connell nor Brian O'Driscoll needs to wear an armband for authority. They are the two most experienced players in the squad. When they talk everyone else listens.

O'Connell has been enjoying the freedom afforded by not being captain – "it's allowed me to concentrate on my own game" – but come game day, it is inconceivable to suggest he won't have a huge input.

"In some ways, the dressing-room has been quieter than anything I've ever been used to. I've enjoyed that change," he said. "Come Saturday, though, I'm sure I'll have plenty to say and I'm sure Brian will, as well as a few other guys.

"We know how difficult it is to try and come back from an opening-game loss. It's been done here before but winning on Saturday is what's important and what we're all striving to achieve."

Winning has been the O'Connell way since he took his first giant strides on to the pitch with Munster and with Ireland. His amazing fightback from crippling injuries speaks volumes for the qualities of the man, for the competitive steel that forms the core of O'Connell the rugby warrior.

He is such an iconic figure for Irish rugby fans that the images that were etched into history on that famous day against Harlequins will live long in the memory.

He would deserve to reprise those celebrations in the Lions shirt and if he were to do so, we would celebrate with him and for him.

Irish Independent

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