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Wallace backs O'Connell to lead Lions
Graham Jenkins
March 6, 2009
Ireland lock Paul O'Connell takes on England's Phil Vickery, Ireland v England, Six Naions Championship, Croke Park, Dublin, Ireland, February 28, 2009.
Ireland lock Paul O'Connell takes on England's Phil Vickery during their recent Six Nations clash at Croke Park © Getty Images
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Former Ireland and British & Irish Lions international Paul Wallace believes lock Paul O'Connell is the man to lead the elite tourists in South Africa later this year.

Wallace, a member of the Lions side that stunned South Africa in 1997, insists the talismanic Irish second row has the qualities to inspire another Test series victory against the current world champions and will get the nod over his compatriot Brian O'Driscoll for the role.

Coach Ian McGeechan famously handed Martin Johnson the captaincy of the 1997 Lions to ensure a physical presence both on and off the field and O'Connell could benefit from a similar approach this time around according to his former international team mate.

"I don't think Paul is quite as big a man as Martin but he is equally fearsome and the kind of guy who could inspire others," said Wallace, who appeared in all three Test 12 years ago. "What he brings to Munster and to Ireland as pack leader is huge and I think he works very well with [Brian] O'Driscoll as captain, they have a very good understanding.

"I think both of them are ideal candidates but going to South Africa you might want your captain in the forwards where Tests are won and lost and maybe O'Connell's influence there in the tight exchanges might pull through for him. But there are other options like [Mike] Blair, [Phil] Vickery, [Steve] Borthwick and Ryan Jones but for me the two Irish options of O'Connell and O'Driscoll are the ones that I would go with."

Following a battling victory over England in their last Six Nations encounter Ireland remain on course for only their second Grand Slam and as a result they are likely to be rewarded when the Lions squad is announced on April 20. Not surprisingly Wallace singled out his brother, Munster back row David Wallace, for praise but believes he will be one of many to board the plane to South Africa.

"I think the Irish backline as a whole have been very impressive, Stephen Ferris has come through amazingly well and to hold [Denis] Leamy off is a huge achievement. Jamie Heaslip's form had been quite poor for Leinster compared to his usual high standards but he has produced an extraordinary running game.

"I think there a lot of guys coming through, I think the back three is a good a back three as Ireland have ever had. In particular I think Rob Kearney is growing and there's going to be a huge showdown between him and Lee Byrne for that Lions Test place. Then you've got wings [Tommy] Bowe and [Luke] Fitzgerald, having played in the centres, they come off their line and the power running they have and their awareness in attack is really adding a new dimension to Ireland."

The arrival of Declan Kidney as coach has been the key to Ireland's revival according to Wallace who was capped 45 times by his country between 1995 and 2002. The former Munster supremo took charge of the national side last year and has led the side to the brink of their first clean sweep since 1948.

"I think he's created a very relaxed camp and all the players are very familiar with him due to the fact that he coached under age Munster and Leinster," explained Wallace. "I think Declan is a great philosopher and gets the best out of them. I think the old coaching set up got a bit staid, perhaps too long in the run, you need a bit of change and new ideas and new influences.

"I think the most glowing change has been the way that Ireland are playing with their heads up, even the likes of O'Connell, maybe last season he would have put the ball under his shoulder and charged at the nearest body, now he's offloading beautifully, guys are looking to play into space and playing with a bit of confidence that they didn't have last year."

Paul Wallace was speaking at an HSBC Lions Legends dinner in Dublin. HSBC is the principal partner of the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

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