The 25-year-old from Cork came on this tour as an outsider, not even a first-choice lock for Ireland and seemingly fifth and last in the Lions pecking order behind Paul O’Connell, Malcolm O’Kelly, Ben Kay and Danny Grewcock.
A lot has changed since, with O’Callaghan taking his opportunities with great aplomb, catching Clive Woodward’s eye early on with rousing performances against Taranaki and Otago and, according to the head coach just missing out on inclusion in the first Test.
The lineout disaster in the first test accounted for Kay, and back-up man Grewcock was subsequently banned for two months for biting Keven Mealamu’s hand. Suddenly O’Callaghan was in the frame but there were still some nervous moments waiting to hear the news at a team meeting yesterday.
“There was a bit of a chat beforehand and he (Woodward) said he’d name the team in 15 minutes,” O’Callaghan said. “That’s when you get the sweaty palms and you’re not really listening to anything else in those 15 minutes beforehand.
“When it came it went from number 15 down to one but then they had a little chat about the front row and you’re just going ‘will you come on?’ “But it was great. It normally takes a bit of time to settle down so they called out the pack again and just the feeling of hearing it again and knowing that you’re in the team was just incredible.”
That O’Callaghan will be playing alongside Munster side-kick Paul O’Connell will undoubtedly give an edge to the lineout contest with All Blacks’ men of the moment Chris Jack and Ali Williams. That said, he admitted that it did seem a little odd to have won a Lions Test place before cementing his place in the Ireland side. “That does feel a bit strange. Watching tv here I was listening to Martin Johnson saying that when he came out here on his first Lions tour he was 23 and he got picked for the second Test and he’d only played a game against France before that. That gave me a bit of confidence. I also look at Jeremy Davidson who came on a Lions tour as an outsider and ended up a Test selection. Someone like that is a huge inspiration for me. But all the way through my hero has been Martin Johnson, someone I really respect, who never took a step back and is a role model for me.”
England’s World Cup-winning captain would relish the challenge set before this Lions team at the weekend and O’Callaghan admitted there had not been a tougher game in his career to come into.
“When you talk about big games you talk about New Zealand. Growing up all your heroes would have been Kiwis and to get this chance is incredible really. It’s something that hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
When he does he will invoke the memory of Thomond Park, October 31, 1978, the day Munster beat the All Blacks 12-0. “That’s a day that’s always talked about in Munster history. It was before I was born but I could nearly tell you the team, Christy Cantillon scoring the try. For a Munster man to go out there on Saturday and have Paul with me as well is a great honour and something I’m very proud of. You dream about playing against the All Blacks but in a Lions jersey it couldn’t be any more special.”
O’Callaghan has a plan to stay cool and calm ahead of the biggest game of his life. “I think you’ve got to approach it as if it’s just another game. I know the ante is massive here, but I’m just very keen to play my own game and just get the basics right. I’m not going to treat this as anything different. I know there’s huge things at stake but I’m not going to change things.”
The Irish second row will be charged with bringing some much-needed security to the Lions lineout and feels the main thing is “not to panic.” “We’re all experienced enough to calm things down and trust each other and learn to be a little bit more calm and composed and make sure it all goes all right.
“I’m just going to look to play my normal game and play the way I’ve been selected, for what I do. I want to return home with no regrets.”