King O’Connell hungry for redemption

The 2005 defeat in New Zealand will spur the 2009 Lions on to an upset according to Paul O’Connell.

O’Connell played for Clive Woodward’s tourists in all three losses and after four years the feelings of regret are still evident. The low brow and square jawline contribute to his intimidating persona, but it is the guttural Gaelic growl that truly conveys the emotion in his statement.

‘There’s a tremendous history in that jersey,’ he says. ‘A lot of great players have worn it, and we want to do them proud. In 2005 we didn’t live up to that tradition. There were a lot of things that went against us on that tour, but we didn’t do our predecessors proud.

‘It’s a huge motivation for me, as a player who was on that 2005 tour, and a few of the other guys. I feel a great privilege every time I pull a jersey on for Munster and Ireland. The same applies for the Lions.’

The red-haired second-rower was 25 the last time he played for the Lions. Of the current group, Gethin Jenkins, Stephen Jones, Donncha O’Callaghan, Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Andrew Sheridan, Martyn Williams, Shane Williams and Phil Vickery were also on that nightmare tour to New Zealand where they lost all the Tests and a midweek fixture to the New Zealand Maoris.

Coach Ian McGeechan was in charge the last time the Lions won back in 1997. The Lions’ mentor believes the occasion will lift the players despite the home unions’ poor record against South Africa in recent years. England were the last side to beat the Boks and that was back in 2006.

‘Just being in this kind of environment and being part of a Lions tour will lift them,’said McGeechan. ‘It’s a high point in any player’s career, as for us it only comes around once every four years and the opportunity to play South Africa only [nowadays] comes around once every 12 years. This is a unique opportunity.’

O’Connell brushed aside talk of division in the camp. Post the Six Nations decider there were rumours of bad blood between the Irish and Welsh, but they remain united in pursuit of a common goal.

‘Everybody has been working together,’ the Lions captain said. ‘The little things have impressed me, like everybody being on time for gym or pitch sessions. We’re a big group, but already close friendships have been formed.

‘The talent’s there in the team and coaching staff, but the important thing is we are slowly becoming a team.’

By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg