Paul O’Connell refused to rule out making a third Lions tour this summer but suggested the odds would be long given he is likely to miss the RBS 6 Nations this spring.
Speaking for the first time since undergoing surgery to correct a bulging disc in his back 10 days ago, the 2009 Lions captain confirmed his likely return to action with Munster would be "sometime in April", a scenario that rules him out of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign and therefore, the 33-year-old believes, makes him an outsider for selection to Warren Gatland’s Lions party heading Down Under for a three-Test series with Australia in June and July.
"It’s going to be very difficult," O’Connell said of his Lions prospects at a press conference in Limerick yesterday. "You would imagine the Lions squad is going to be picked on the basis of the Six Nations so it’s going to be very difficult to make it on that trip.
"I’d love to get back playing in April and see what happens. I’d love to get going on some tour during the summer, be it with Ireland or the Lions. When you look at it, I remember the hype around the Lions four years ago; it seems to be even bigger this year but the big hype is around the Six Nations and the players that show form in the Six Nations. It is going to be very tough not playing in that tournament."
Given a 12 to 16-week recovery window, an early rehabilitation could see O’Connell back in an Irish jersey 11 weeks after his December 31 operation, against Italy in Rome on March 16.
"If I was it would be a bonus but I don’t think it’s going to happen," O’Connell cautioned.
"It will be sometime in April. It would be great if it was early April but I’ve just got to make sure I get it right and I’m right for the rest of my career.
"You’d never rule it out (the Lions) but I’ll be back playing in April so it’s probably going to be very tough having not played in the Six Nations."
Should everything work to the prescribed timetable, O’Connell could reasonably expect to be back in time for a possible Heineken Cup quarter-final, should Munster, in his absence, succeed in reaching the last eight over the next two weeks.
Back-to-back bonus-point victories over Edinburgh on Sunday and then Racing Metro are the minimum requirement to progress from Pool 1 but doubts have set in about the province’s chances after a woeful performance in the home league 17-6 defeat to Cardiff Blues at Musgrave Park last Saturday. Still, O’Connell is thinking positively.
"Obviously we’re very disappointed after last weekend," he said. "I suppose one thing we’ve had in recent years is a lot of consistency in the Celtic League. We’ve been up there or thereabouts in the top four. But I do remember seven or eight years ago we used to regularly produce a bad performance the week before a Heineken Cup game.
"We don’t want to go back to that but hopefully we can produce some good form now like we used to do back in those days. I think the boys are really disappointed they let their standards drop so much at the weekend and I’d be confident of a big performance at the weekend."
A springtime return on the biggest stage is certainly giving O’Connell added encouragement as he embarks on his recovery.
"It would be great. We all want to play in the big games and there’s no bigger games in April than the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, so it would be fantastic if the boys were still in it."