With a Grand Slam and two Heineken Cup successes on his resumé, Paul O’Connell is pretty much in the “been there, done that”, category of rugby players.
The Munster lock even has a British & Lions captaincy on the list, from the tour to South Africa last time out in 2009. Yet even that would be surpassed by experiencing a Test series victory over Australia next summer.
Being a Lion is one thing, however winning as a Lion is, O’Connell believes, what turns great players into rugby legends this side of the equator.
“I think the guys who have won Lions tours and World Cups are the players who have set themselves apart from everyone else in the northern hemisphere,” O’Connell said as he looked forward to the new season, which begins in earnest on September 1 and could end with a place on the 2013 Lions tour.
“For me, when I think of that 1997 team that went to South Africa, they’re the real legends. I suppose the English team that won the World Cup, they’re the players that have set themselves apart.”
That 1997 series defeat of the world champion Springboks by Martin Johnson’s Lions represents the last time the tourists have returned north with a victory and O’Connell has experienced at first hand both the nightmare scenario of a whitewash by New Zealand in 2005 and the pulsating near-miss 2-1 defeat to the Boks four years ago.
Winning a series, he believes, is becoming increasingly difficult for the Lions but there is still reason for optimism that they can turn over the Wallabies next summer.
“I think so. I’ve been on two and they’re incredibly hard to win and becoming harder and harder to win. I think to come together in the professional era and become a team, defensively, set-piece-wise and in terms of how you want to attack — to become a team, there’s so much planning that goes into that now. It’s not like it was 20 or 30 years ago, now with all that to organise, to face a southern hemisphere superpower is a very difficult thing to do.
“But with astute management, like the Lions had in 2009 with Ian McGeechan and Warren Gatland, it can be done. And with talented players like were there in 2009, and you look at a lot of the players around now in the home nations, I think the capability to come together as a team in a short time is there.
“It’s a difficult task and I think every Lions team will be underdogs now for the rest of time but I think certainly the Lions can go down there and win. It will be very difficult but I think they can go down there and win.”
A third Lions tour would be a fitting reward for the 2009 captain but 32-year-old O’Connell, who hinted strongly this week that he is ready to stand down as the Munster skipper after six years at the helm, is not taking anything for granted in the face of competition at second row from the likes of Scotland’s Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton, England’s Courtney Lawes and Welshmen Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris.
“I’d love to go but you look at the quality of second rows around now, it’s going to be very tough to go,” O’Connell said. “It probably adds to the anticipation (for the coming season) but I don’t think it adds to how you train. I think you train hard every pre-season, no matter what. But, yes, it will be at the back of everybody’s minds but that’s where you have to keep it.
“You have to just perform the best you can for your team and if you do, that individual honours will come from that, be that national selection or selection for the Lions.”
O’Connell’s first priority, however is to return to the Munster team having recovered from the knee injury he suffered against France last February.
“I could play this weekend if I was allowed but I think that they just want me to get a bit more running under my belt. I’ve been back since week one, seven or eight weeks ago, but I’m only running for about two.
“My knee is right, now but I’m probably not fit to play now. I rather come back sooner rather than later and try and get a bit of fitness with games as well, so hopefully sooner rather than later.”
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