It hardly seemed likely when Paul O’Connell went under the knife last New Year’s Eve, that the Munster and Ireland talisman would be standing tall in Brisbane discussing his first Test against Australia in a British and Irish Lions jersey.
Yet less than six months after undergoing surgery to correct a bulging disc in his lower back, the 33-year-old lock is facing in to his seventh consecutive Lions Test appearance on his third tour of duty and playing with house money, everything since his return to fitness very much icing on the cake.
“Absolutely,” O’Connell agreed yesterday following training at the Anglican Church Grammar School in East Brisbane. “People were talking about captaincy and things like that; I just wanted to be on the plane. Absolutely in bonus territory. I’ve really enjoyed it, really enjoyed not being captain in some ways and being able to relax and worry about my own game.
“We defend differently here, we attack differently, the lineouts are a lot different to what I’m used to, the way we call them and things, so there’s been a lot of work that I’ve had to do on my own and I’ve enjoyed being able to do that without having to worry about the captaincy.”
If you were to ask O’Connell for the most important game on his journey from the surgeon’s table to the Lions Test team, there is a good chance he will cite a game he did not even play in, rather Munster’s final Heineken Cup pool game at home to Racing Metro, a bonus-point victory that secured an away quarter-final and enabled him to play in high-profile games once he had recuperated fully.
“I was grateful to the boys for producing the big performance in January against Racing to get the bonus point to get us into the those games that selectors were watching,” O’Connell said, before adding: “I was lucky to get back as early as I did from the operation.
“All along it was a case of it wasn’t so bad that I needed an operation, that we thought it would come right. So then when I did need it, it wasn’t as bad as some people are when they need to get their back operated on.
“I got to play in those two big games against Harlequins and againstClermont, and also we had a big Rabo game against Leinster as well, which was probably the toughest of all the games I played.”
While O’Connell was publicly discounting his chances of making Warren Gatland’s squad for this tour, he said it was a different matter privately.
“Probably I was trying to take a bit of pressure off as well. There had been a bit of focus for a while, even during the summer when I didn’t make the [Ireland] tour in the summer, I was half-thinking in the back of my mind it’s not the end of the world with the Lions tour next year: I can get a full pre-season and be in as good shape as I could.
“To have not got a pre-season then [due to knee and back problems]… but I did know if I got back early enough I was always in with a shout.”
While O’Connell carried that form into the tour matches, several Lions squad members failed to sustain it as far as Tuesday, when the tourists’ unbeaten record in 2013 was lost to the Brumbies in Canberra. The Ireland second row is adamant, though, that the 14-12 defeat has not and will not affect morale heading into the opening Test tomorrow at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.
“I don’t think it’s had any effect on the confidence; it’s probably made us wary of a few things, but certainly the breakdown is massive. We’ve played some really good rugby up to now but we have to be just as good without the ball as well. We all want to get the ball in our hands but the breakdown is a massive area, especially every time you play Australia.
“With the dry grounds as well, you need ball and you need quick ball so the breakdown was a big issue on Tuesday and it’s something we really need to be aware of this weekend as well.”
Nor is O’Connell overly concerned by the numerous lineout malfunctions the Lions suffered against the Brumbies, nor that the draining of confidence at that particular set-piece would spread throughout the Test forwards.
“Days like that are always only one step away,” he said of Tuesday’s lineout return. “You have one or two bad calls, one or two good bits of D [defence] from them and one or two bad throws and you have lost six lineouts when there is probably nothing majorly wrong; it’s just one of those days.
“We’ve all had them; I’ve had them with Munster and Ireland in the past and you just gotta make sure you’re prepared as best you can and you have a few simple lineouts that you can always go back to as well when the pressure is on.
“I’ve thrown a lot with [starting hooker] Tom Youngs in the last four or five weeks. I haven’t played a whole lot with him but I’ve done loads and loads of lineouts with him in training so I don’t think that will be a problem. I’m hoping so anyway.”
One thing is for sure, the Lions cannot afford to find out the hard way. Winning the first Test is imperative to winning the series against the Wallabies.
“The [Lions] have come from one down here before [in 1899 and 1989] but certainly if you don’t win the first Test it leaves you a big hill to climb,” O’Connell said. “It’s a strange game in many ways in that you don’t know what’s going to happen. They haven’t played in so long, they’ve three new caps, but yes, a lot rides on the first game certainly, no doubt about it.”
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