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O'Connell 'excited and honoured' to fill Warburton's shoes as Lions' quest begins

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Paul O'Connell during squad training ahead of their game against Barbarian FC

Paul O'Connell during squad training ahead of their game against Barbarian FC

Conor Murray during squad training. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Conor Murray during squad training. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

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Paul O'Connell during squad training ahead of their game against Barbarian FC

PAUL O'CONNELL spoke of the pride he feels ahead of leading the Lions in the first game of their new tour for the second time in his career, WRITES CONOR GEORGE.

O'Connell skippered the Lions in their first match in 2009 as tour captain. This time he is standing in for Wales' Sam Warburton, who is kept out of this match by injury. The feeling of pride at this honour is as strong as it was four years ago for the Ireland international.

"I'm delighted. It's a very exciting occasion," said O'Connell. "It's a tremendous honour."

Five Irish players have been included in the squad of 23 that will play the Barbarians in Hong Kong tomorrow, four of them as replacements.

O'Connell has been selected to start and captain the side as Warburton has suffered what coach Warren Gatland described as a "minor ACL injury" at yesterday's first-team announcement.

"I'm disappointed for Sam, but for me I'm thrilled and I'm really looking forward to it," O'Connell added. "Even three months after Christmas, I didn't think I'd be here, so it's great for me."

He is joined in the squad by his Munster team-mate Conor Murray (right) and three of Leinster's Pro12 and Amlin Challenge Cup double champions – Cian Healy, Jonathan Sexton and Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip. This is a first Lions experience for Healy and Sexton and all four Irish replacements will see action tomorrow.

"Given the conditions and the heat, I think it's safe to assume that everyone will get a run-out," said Gatland. "We'll bring players off the bench, while also keeping players refreshed because we have a big couple of weeks coming up."

Once Warburton was a confirmed absentee, Gatland admitted that he didn't have to think too hard about who would stand in for him.

"It was a bit of a no-brainer really, with Paul in the squad," he said. "He gives us some genuine leadership. Paul's the obvious choice."

The Lions are beginning to adapt to the hot and humid conditions in Hong Kong – "we are all breathing a little easier," said O'Connell – and are looking forward to the first run out of their 10-game programme.

"It's important to get the Tour off to a winning start. I remember the first game in 2009 we didn't play well, but we got the win and that got us moving in the right direction," said the Munster legend.

"If we can achieve that this time around and get Sam back in the next week or so, we'll be in a good place."

LIONS – S Hogg (Scotland); A Cuthbert (Wales), J Davies (Wales), J Roberts (Wales), S Maitland (Scotland); O Farrell (England), M Phillips (Wales); M Vunipola (England), R Hibbard (Wales), A Jones (Wales), R Gray (Scotland), P O'Connell (Ireland, capt), D Lydiate (Wales), J Tipuric (Wales), T Faletau (Wales). Reps: T Youngs (England), C Healy (Ireland), M Stevens (England), A W Jones (Wales), J Heaslip (Ireland), C Murray (Ireland), J Sexton (Ireland), G North (Wales).

Irish Independent