South Africa coach Peter de Villiers has revealed his surprise at the appointment of Paul O’Connell as captain of the British and Irish Lions squad.
However, the Springbok boss, who was anticipating a team led by Ireland skipper Brian O’ Driscoll, believes that the tour party named by opposite number Ian McGeechan is “what we expected”.
Lions manager Gerald Davies ended the waiting game in London this afternoon by announcing a 37-man party for the 10-match trip, that includes three Tests against world champions South Africa.
“I am surprised that Paul O’Connell got the captaincy ahead of Brian O’ Driscoll, who was the most successful captain in the Six Nations in 2009 and captained the Lions to New Zealand four years ago,” said De Villiers.
“Having said that, O’Connell is the captain of Munster and has also captained Ireland at Test level and we will not underestimate his leadership capabilities.
“This is a huge accolade for Paul O’Connell and it will come with great responsibility.”
The captains of England, Scotland and Wales – respectively Steve Borthwick, Ryan Jones and Mike Blair – all failed to make the final list.
Other absentees include Jonny Wilkinson, Danny Cipriani, Gavin Henson and James Hook, plus the shock omission, England flanker Tom Croft.
But there were surprise call-ups for the likes of Munster pair Keith Earls and Alan Quinlan in a squad that will be captained by their Munster colleague.
Ireland will provide 14 players, Wales 13, England eight and Scotland just two.
De Villiers continued: “Any selection will have its fair share of surprises but we believe that Ian McGeechan and his team have placed their confidence in what they believe to be the best 37 players in the four home unions.
“For us, however, it is more important that we now know exactly who our opposition will be as opposed to which players made it and which did not.
“It is a good squad, which is what we expected, based on the players who were on form in the Six Nations and understanding the type of players that Ian McGeechan was looking for.
“It is also evident that the squad has been picked on form, fitness, combinations and experience. It looks like a well-balanced and experienced group and it will be interesting to see how their Test side takes shape.
“As expected the bulk of players are from Ireland and Wales, but the number of England players in the group is evidence of the improvement they showed in the closing stages of the Six Nations.”
Turning his attention to the series itself, the Springbok boss is keen to reverse what happened 12 years ago when the Lions won 2-1 on their last tour to the country.
He added: “Now that we know the make-up of the Lions squad we will be able to advance our preparations in terms of our analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, how we expect them to play and how we must prepare for the three tests.
“A Lions tour is always a momentous occasion and 2009 will be no different. Our guys know the magnitude of the task that lies ahead and they know the expectation that there is, especially in view of the disappointments of 1997. I am looking forward to the Test series.”
National captain John Smit expects his side to have their work cut out against what he described as a “very strong” team.
He said: “It is not surprising that the squad is dominated by players from the two teams that contested the Six Nations title.
“We always expected them to pick strong and aggressive forwards, which indicates that they see the scrum and lineout as key elements of the contest.
“There is depth in every position, which is what they will need on a long and tough tour. We expect that there will be strong competition for places in all positions, which will make things interesting for us.
“Overall, it is a very strong team and one that will certainly provide a big challenge for us on our home ground, which we are really looking forward to.”
As for the man who will be his own opposite number, he added: “The captain Paul O’Connell is a team man who is well respected internationally.
“It is obvious they are trying to replicate the vibe and momentum that they had with the same coach in 1997.”