Something close to 20,000km separate Paul O’Connell from the Lions right now but the umbilical cord remains.
A three-time tourist with 15 appearances to his name, he watched the first Test on Saturday from the rather more genteel surroundings of Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square, where the team’s principal sponsors had laid on a giant screen and a choice of breakfasts.
The scent of flaming meat drifted over the manicured park and a trickle of courageous kids eager for autographs broke into a tide as the game in Eden Park mutated from that of a potential classic into an ultimately convincing win for the reigning world champions.
O’Connell was good value up on stage before, during, and after it. He’s used to these commercial gigs now and he cruised through the banter and the analysis with Doug Howlett and Willie John McBride with the ease of an All Black hooker scooping a hospital pass off his toes.
There have been few pangs for his old life since playing for the last time at the 2015 World Cup but there is the sense that he’d dearly love to be in Wellington right now and doing his bit to wrestle with the challenge facing Warren Gatland’s squad.
In 2005 in New Zealand, and again in South Africa four years later, he was an integral member of sides that were well beaten in the first Test.
The aftermath of that 21-3 loss in Christchurch 12 years ago stands out as a particularly stark period of time.
“2005, in particular, was very tough because Richard Hill was gone at that stage and Brian was gone and (Lawrence) Dallaglio.
Rather than moving on to the next Test we were giving late-night press conferences about the Brian O’Driscoll incident.
“So we didn’t really move on and start to get ready. The experience of the coaching staff will move the players on really quickly (this time) and I don’t think it’s rocket science what they have to do next week to put in a better performance.
I don’t think it would be that difficult to put in a better performance. But it will be a tough week for them.”
Today and tomorrow will be the key days. That’s how it always was for O’Connell, regardless of whether he was playing for Munster, Ireland, or the Lions.
Tone and mood are captured at the week’s dawn, shoulders squared to the tasks at hand and the majority of prep work put in that will have to carry a team through the seven-day turnaround.
It goes without saying that O’Connell was impressed with the All Blacks but he felt the 30-15 scoreline was suggestive of a knife twisted deeper than it had been.
“The ball handling was quite poor. Stuff we should be good at. Fair enough, you can’t countenance for pieces of magic like (Kieran) Read’s offload but you’d expect to be better at the scrum five seconds before it. I don’t think the gap is that big, we just contributed massively to our own downfall.”
Defeat demands action in its wake but the challenge for Gatland this week is to step back from the noise and navigate a way for this Lions team to impress.
Changes in personnel are expected but O’Connell isn’t of the belief that moving pieces on a chess board is the answer.
He’d like to have seen Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell paired from the off in Auckland — and hasn’t been put off the idea despite their struggles late on last weekend, or by Ben Te’o’s performance — but strip everything down and the basic building blocks clearly need attention.
“When we were successful with Ireland, a lot of it is simple stuff: your ball focus, your ability to catch the ball and hold onto it,” O’Connell explained. “We knocked the ball on a lot (on Saturday). There isn’t much you can do in a week if you are knocking on a ball.”
Even less when you’re on the other side of the world. His week will be a long one, too.
Paul O’Connell was speaking at the Standard Life Investments screening of the first Lions test. Standard Life Investments is principal partner and jersey sponsor of the 2017 tour to New Zealand — thelions.standardlifeinvestments.com.
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