O’Connell has made an emphatic return from injury inspiring Munster into the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup with a victory against the odds at Harlequins last Sunday.
His one-man master-class at the Twickenham Stoop saw the veteran lock swiftly installed as 5/4 favourite with many bookmakers not only to travel Down Under this summer with the British and Irish Lions, but do so with the captain’s armband.
However Lions coach Gatland moved just as quickly to temper that excitement by insisting he was not getting “carried away” over O’Connell’s return, adding that his performance against Harlequins was what he would have expected from a player of such stature.
Instead, Gatland will be at Thomond Park today for the derby between Munster and Leinster to take another look at the former Lion captain, as well as other candidates for the tour to Australia.
“He [O’Connell] stood out with a dominant display but that’s what you expect of professional athletes and players that have been at the top of the game for a long time,” Gatland said.
“You expect that when they come back they make an impact and stamp their authority on the game.
“He did that but it’s about us not getting carried away. It’s only one game and we will go to watch him again this weekend. Hopefully that form will continue this weekend.
“He definitely took the eye of a number of people including ourselves particularly at line out time, around the field and his leadership qualities.
“I’ve a huge amount of time for Paul and all he has achieved.
“His successes have been with Munster and Ireland but probably if he looks back on his career, he’d love to go on another Lions tour and win a series in the Southern Hemisphere.
“It’s something not a lot of players have achieved.”
While England’s Chris Robshaw, Wales pair Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones, as well as Irish stalwarts O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll endured mixed fortunes in recent months, Gatland insists he knows his first-choice for the job, though is keeping quiet until the squad is named.
“I’m pretty clear on who I would like to do it but I haven’t spoken to that person,” Gatland said.
“It’s unfair at the moment because of the way the media is. Every player has probably been asked, ‘Has Warren Gatland spoken to you?’.
“I will probably leave it as late as possible. I’d like to make sure when the squad is announced, it’s something special.
” I don’t want it to be leaked and ideally I’d like to keep the captaincy quiet as well. It’s going to be hard but that’s the plan.”
Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo are hoping they still have time to make late bids for a place in Gatland’s 37-man squad, due to be named on April 30, as they return from respective injuries.
“I’m enjoying it [selection speculation] at the moment but I don’t think I’ll enjoy it when the squad is finally announced,” Gatland said.
“The amount of information and advice I was given over the weekend was incredible and it was just amazing to see how passionate people were, as well as being a little bit biased to their own teams, which is completely understandable. But I’ve always said, selection is only a matter of opinion.”
Meanwhile, a two-day meeting of potential Wallabies for the Lions series begins tomorrow in Sydney without flyhalf Quade Cooper.
The Australian Rugby Union said yesterday that New South Wales recruit Israel Folau — a former rugby league international who also previously played Australian Rules — would be among the 30 players, including seven who have never played internationally for Australia.
In December, Cooper ended a six-month standoff with the ARU by signing a two-year deal reportedly worth €640,000 a season.
It followed Cooper’s criticism of the Wallabies and Deans, including a reference to a “toxic environment” around the team.
Cooper was fined €32,000 for his remarks.
“There’s something like eight rounds to go before we gather for the Lions tour,’ Deans said in Sydney. “So there’s still a lot of rugby to be played, a lot of water to go under the bridge and a lot of opportunity for everyone to press their claims.’
In a statement earlier yesterday, Deans said the camp, which ends on Monday, would allow the players to complete the team’s pre-Lions commercial obligations, with some rugby-related planning scheduled.
He said a “wide net” had been spread through the three logistics camps held, with 50 players in attendance in January and 30 at the second two-day assembly in February.