Such is O’Connell’s gravitas within Warren Gatland’s squad that the injury he sustained during the first Test victory over the Wallabies in Brisbane last Saturday has ramifications for tour morale just as much off the field as it does on it.
O’Connell, the Lions said, suffered an “undisplaced fracture of his lower right arm” which had been confirmed by a specialist in Brisbane yesterday before the tourists left for Melbourne ahead of the second Test.
Despite his injury, which brings down the curtain on a three-tour Lions career that began in New Zealand eight years ago and saw him captain the tourists in 2009 in South Africa, the 33-year-old was all smiles as he attended yesterday’s captain’s run ahead of today’s tour match against the Melbourne Rebels at AAMI Park and both he and head coach Gatland are understood to be weighing up the pros and cons of remaining with the party or waving goodbye and flying home.
There is no doubt which the Lions would prefer, with fellow Irishman Sean O’Brien saying: “It’s a decision for him to make if he wants to stay on. He’s a big influence. Personally I’d like to see him stay on.”
Elaborating on why he wanted the seven-Test veteran to stay, O’Brien pointed to O’Connell’s talismanic qualities on and off the field of play.
“I think just his presence. He has a lot of experience, he’s a big physical man, he has won lots of trophies in his career and he has been playing at the top of his game for so long now.
“But off the field as well he is someone the younger fellas do look up to. You can confide in him and talk to him and he will be missed all round.”
O’Connell’s tour-ending injury marks a definitive shift in the momentum of the Test series with Australia, who had been reeling from their 23-21 defeat in the opening rubber at Suncorp Stadium and on Sunday had been fearing the worst as skipper James Horwill faced a hearing into a citing allegation that he had stamped on Alun-Wyn Jones during a third-minute ruck in the game the previous day.
Horwill walked out of that appearance at the independent judicial hearing having been cleared of the charge and the Wallabies received a second dose of good fortune soon after as news leaked out that O’Connell’s tour was in jeopardy.
Lions forwards coach Graham Rowntree refused to be drawn on the subject of Horwill’s acquittal yesterday but the former Lions front rower and fellow 2005 tourist said of O’Connell: “He’s one of the best. He’s in the form of his life as well.
“He almost came into selection quite late because he’d been out for such a long time with injuries this season. He came back on the radar in that game against Quins when [Munster] beat them in the Heineken Cup. I don’t think he’s ever been fitter, and he’s a good leader, without stamping all over what [tour captain] Sam [Warburton] says.
“Paul is a big leader in the group. He’s very respectful of Sam being the captain, he leads by example. That will do won’t it, all that lot? It’s pretty good for a player.”
O’Connell may no longer be available for selection but Rowntree insisted his loss would have a galvanising effect on the Lions as they bid to wrap up a first series win since 1997 in Melbourne on Saturday.
“It will definitely bring us together. Such is the feeling and the culture we have here within the group, it will definitely bring us together. Gats spoke to the lads three times about this weekend, how we’ve got to lift another couple of gears. I thought we deserved that victory at the weekend, but our intensity and accuracy has got to go up another couple of gears, and I’m pretty confident that we can do that with this group.”
Reaching into the coaches’ big book of popular maxims, Rowntree also emphasised that one player’s misfortune was another’s opportunities, the gauntlet being thrown down not just to his English compatriot Parling but Scotland’s Richie Gray and Welshman Ian Evans, who willface the Rebels, to stand up and be counted.
“Those guys have all been told that. The squad that takes the field [against the Rebels], there are a lot of opportunities there for guys to beinvolved at the weekend. I’m sure there will be a handful of guys who take the field on Saturday, from the team who plays [against the Rebels].”