WHILE LIONS CAPTAIN Sam Warburton was in one room of Carton House yesterday praising the leadership of Paul O’Connell, his predecessor was in the next, unknowingly repaying the compliment.
The tour may be just over a week old, but these two Lions captains are already singing from the same hymn sheet.
Maybe it was no accident. The pair spent week one of the tour sharing a room, the captaincy handed over in the intimacy of bathroom routines and snoring habits deep in the Vale of Glamorgan.
“He’s a real nice guy.” O’Connell says of his captain. “He won’t need much helping from myself or Drico or whoever.
“He’s a very confident guy with a lot of control and I think he’s going to continue what he was doing with Wales and keep doing it the same way. That’s probably the best thing you can do.”
There are certainly no hard feelings. Having endured a year of back pain and just eight appearances, the Limerick man needs no reminding of how fortunate he is to be involved. O’Connell now feels fully over the bulging disc in his back thanks to an adapted and tailored training work-load.
“Six months ago I didn’t think I’d be here – probably three months ago. I didn’t think I’d be here at all. So it’s a big bonus for me. I’m delighted to be here.
“Not being captain, there’s probably a lot of pressure off and I’m just able to concentrate and focus on my own game.”
Warburton’s argument is that O’Connell’s own game is leadership ‘whether he knows it or not’. Yet the disagreements don’t last long between the men. They were united again by their hint that morale in camp could and should be higher.
“It’s important to work very hard at becoming a team.” The lock said when asked what lessons he had taken from his time touring in 2005 and 2009. Rather than stick solely to his own experience, he invoked the spirit of Lions from a different era.
“Previous tours probably had a lot more time on tour together; they had two or three months together. Times were less professional; they probably had more time to socialise together. We’re obviously at the peak of professionalism and guys work really hard on their game, so there isn’t a whole lot of time for socialising.
“It’s important to work on that and not just take it for granted that it will happen.
“That’s probably something that happened in ’09. We became a very tight-knit group in a very concentrated period of time. That’s what we have to do as a group now, work really hard as a team in getting to know one another.”
The likelihood is that the final influx of players after the Pro12 and Premiership finals will lift the mood. So too, will the prospect of the first game; a chance to finally wear the red jersey in anger against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on 1 June.
O’Connell stretches that back under the watchful eyes of mascot ‘BIL’. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
The positive for O’Connell having missed out on so much rugby is that he needs game-time. Barring any unforeseen problems on the long-haul flight east, then he will face the Barbarians for the first time in his career.
It’s a fixture he describes as “an incredible occasion,” a far cry from his last – but no less useful – competitive outing.
“I was delighted to get that Zebre game at the end of the year and get through it.” He says.
“Getting 80 minutes was another step forward in fitness for me. So I look forward to that Barbarians game. The more games I get the better, so I want to play as many back-to-back as I can and develop my fitness.
“I just can’t wait now until the full squad is together and we’re on the plane on the way over.”