A FUNNY thing happened to Paul O’Connell on his way to becoming the 10th Irishman to lead a Lions tour.
Head coach Ian McGeehan tried — and failed — on a number of occasions to break the news to the 29-year-old but Munster’s Heineken Cup winning skipper wasn’t inclined to take the call.
So what would make him avoid one of the most important conversations of your rugby playing career?
O’Connell laughed: “I had a few missed calls last Monday night from an English number but for the last few weeks I’d had a guy phoning me on an English number trying to sell me shares.
“I was avoiding the call but saw the number again at 8.55am on the Tuesday morning. I rang it back and it was Geech but still wasn’t certain — Brian Carney and Frankie Sheahan are always making crank calls.
“Once I was sure of the accent, we had a chat and he asked me to be captain. The accent was too good to be a hoax — I’ve sat in with the lads on one of their crank calls and their accents aren’t the best.
“He asked me if I would accept the captaincy and I didn’t hesitate in doing so.
“It’s the ultimate honour for a rugby player.”
This will be O’Connell’s second Lions tour and it’s one that he hopes will yield a more positive outcome than the chastening 2005 trip to New Zealand.
The Limerick man admitted: “That tour goes down to experience, it was disappointing, but luckily I have moved on from there and enjoyed a fair degree of success. Nobody has a career that’s up, up, up all the time. You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth and that tour was all part of a learning experience.”
O’Connell agreed he wouldn’t lack for inspiration when he leads the squad to face the might of South Africa on their home patch.
He said: “The whole concept of a Lions tour is a challenge; when I look back on previous Lions tours for inspiration.
“I suppose I would refer to 1974 and 1997 to South Africa when the personnel involved managed to bring the team together successfully as a single entity.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge, but it’s one I am looking forward to. I recall both of those tours through documentaries and videos, but the 1997 tour is more vivid.”
In 1997, Martin Johnson led the Lions to a famous 2-1 Test series triumph and O’Connell hopes to emulate England’s World Cup-winning captain.
“I don’t really know Martin that well. In 1997, I was 17 and very impressionable. I watched him on that tour and playing for England,” he said. “I thought he was a fabulous player. The way he led the Lions in 1997 was something to be admired and learned from. When I look back at the Lions, it’s the teams that have been successful that I remember.”
O’Connell will be in good company in South Africa, as one of 14 Irishmen in the party, eight of them from Munster. The selection of both Keith Earls and Alan Quinlan will come as a surprise to some, but not to O’Connell.
“They’re both great players, from great rugby families; I actually played with Keith’s father Ger for Young Munster and the family has every right to be proud.
“Quinny has had some unlucky breaks over the years, but he is playing great rugby and I can’t think of a more passionate and proud person; he is absolutely made for a Lions tour in terms of what he will bring to it, on and off the pitch.”
O’Connell laughed off his spat with Warren Gatland, the Wales coach who made some inflammatory comments against Ireland in the build-up to last month’s Six Nations finale in Cardiff. The pair will work closely together in South Africa as Gatland is Lions assistant coach but O’Connell insists there is no ill-feeling.
“It was a big match, a big game with a lot at stake. There was a lot said,” he said.
“He clipped us a few times and I clipped him afterwards. We spoke a few days after on the phone. We had a laugh about it.”
Gatland added: “Paul is a Grand Slam winner and is entitled to say what he likes. He’s a winner.”
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