Paul O'Connell returns to British & Irish Lions hoping traditions live on
When Paul O'Connell played his first 80 minutes of rugby for five months in an amateur game in March, he did not allow himself to even dream of making one last British and Irish Lions tour.
Yet within a month, O'Connell had inspired Munster to a Heineken Cup win over Harlequins and made such a compelling case for inclusion that bookmakers made him odds-on favourite to captain the touring side for the second time in a row.
While the captaincy went to Wales' Sam Warburton, the big second row's selection was never in doubt from the moment the full-time whistle sounded at The Stoop and O'Connell, hand raised in the air, was mobbed by his teammates.
"Three months ago, I didn't think I'd be here, so it's all a bonus for me," O'Connell said at the Lions' training camp. "People ask me, would I have been disappointed if I hadn't been selected. I wouldn't have been really. I got back from a very serious injury as quick as I could and played as well as I could. When you give everything you have, if you come up short that's just the way it is."
Dogged by injury since he led the Lions in South Africa in 2009, the 33-year-old underwent surgery on his back for the second time on New Year's Eve and all but ruled himself out of Lions selection 10 days later.
The Harlequins' game, with O'Connell dominant in the lineout and immense in the loose, changed all that. While conscious that he last started for Ireland over a year ago, the 1.98-metre tall lock was unsure if he was even in Warren Gatland's thoughts.
He said he had not offered Warburton any particular advice, but did recommend that some Lions traditions continue. "Hopefully we'll get a few nights out … I think there's a point where professionalism has a certain amount of limited gains."