O'Connell confirmed as Lions captain
April 21, 2009
Lions head coach Ian McGeechan looks up to his captain Paul O'Connell © Getty Images
Ireland lock Paul O'Connell has been confirmed as captain for the British & Irish Lions' tour to South Africa.
O'Connell, who becomes the 10th Irishman to lead a Lions tour, was officially unveiled at today's squad announcement after edging out his national skipper Brian O'Driscoll in the all-Irish race for the captaincy.
The 29-year-old will follow in the footsteps of his compatriot and Lions legend Willie John McBride who led the elite tourists to a series triumph in South Africa in 1974. The Munster stalwart will also emulate England's Martin Johnson, who was selected to captain the 1997 trip to South Africa despite not being national skipper at the time.
O'Connell will lead a squad that does not include three Six Nations captains - Wales' Ryan Jones, England's Steve Borthwick and Scotland's Mike Blair - who have all failed to secure a tour place.
O'Connell, who accepted the offer of the captaincy last week from head coach Ian McGeechan, was understandably delighted when he faced the media that had gathered in the bowels of the Sofitel Hotel at Heathrow's Terminal 5.
"To be selected for a second Lions tour is fantastic and to be asked to captain the squad is a tremendous honour," he said. "It is not only a great honour for me but an honour for Munster and Ireland.
"When you look at the players and the squad that's been picked, the talent in the squad. You look at the captains that have captained the Lions before me, the players that have played before me, it's a massive honour and I'm delighted to take the job. The tour to South Africa represents a huge challenge."
McGeechan insisted that O'Connell, a key member of Ireland's Six Nations Grand Slam side, was well qualified to lead the Lions.
"Paul has shown over his career that he is a natural leader both on and off the field," he said. "He leads from the front on the field and as a quality international has the respect of his fellow players all over the world."
"As a member of the 2005 tour to New Zealand he played in five matches including three Tests so knows all about the ethos and challenges of Lions tours. I look forward to working with him and the entire squad over the coming months as we strive to develop a side that can add a successful chapter in the long history of the Lions," added McGeechan.
McGeechan also said he opted for O'Connell because he wanted a strong captain. "If you get that kind of leadership in a place like South Africa it is very important. It was a tough call but I am just delighted that Brian O'Driscoll is a great leader in the backs.
"I spoke to Brian last week and his response was fantastic. It all shows that there is some special chemistry between the guys," McGeechan added.
"Naturally there were some tough decisions and there will be disappointed players but I am confident that this is a very strong and capable squad. Its composition reflects the form shown in the Six Nations and domestic rugby and has a balanced blend of experience and youth."
O'Connell is joined by 13 other members of Ireland's Grand Slam squad in fellow forwards Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Stephen Ferris, Alan Quinlan, Donncha O'Callaghan and Jerry Flannery. The Irish backs were led by Brian O'Driscoll, Robert Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Ronan O'Gara and Thomas O'Leary.
Gerald Davies and Ian McGeechan announced the squad that features 14 players from Ireland, 13 from Wales, eight from England and two from Scotland. McGeechan admitted he had made some difficult choices including the decisions to sideline three of the sport's glamour boys. Out-of-favour Danny Cipriani and the injured Gavin Henson and Jonny Wilkinson will also miss out on the trip.
Three exciting talents were among the unexpected call ups with Ireland's Keith Earls, Ugo Monye of England and Wales wing Leigh Halfpenny getting the nod. Elsewhere in the forwards, the preference for Munster's Alan Quinlan ahead of Tom Croft, the Leicester forward, tipped by many to be a tour certainty, was seen as a surprise.
The eight-strong Munster contingent also equals the Lions record for one team, jointly held by Newport (1910) and Leicester (2005), when then Lions boss Sir Clive Woodward took an inflated squad. Four players, meanwhile, make their third Lions trip - centre Brian O'Driscoll, fly-half Ronan O'Gara, lock Simon Shaw and flanker Martyn Williams.
England lock Simon Shaw is the only survivor from the Lions' 1997 South African expedition, and will be the oldest tourists at 35. Cardiff Blues speedster Halfpenny, in contrast, is the youngest Lion of 2009 at 20.
The squad announcement ended an epic battle for selection for the 10-match trip which starts against a Royal XV in Rustenburg on May 30 and is highlighted by three Tests against the world champion Springboks.
The Lions have not won a Test series since McGeechan masterminded their memorable triumph over South Africa 12 years ago. It is a poor record, and McGeechan will have put an emphasis on form, fitness and experience throughout his selection process as he looks to start redressing the balance of results following series defeats in Australia (2001) and New Zealand (2005).
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