James Lawton: O'Connell knows traditions can reawaken slumbering pride

The players have to answer: is this the last time they go in search of that old glory?
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The Independent Online

However history comes to judge the Lions captaincy of Paul O'Connell no one will be able say he underplayed the scale of the challenge that begins to unfold in South Africa this weekend.

No one can say that he missed the fact that viability, just as much as the old glory, was on the line when some behemoths from the high veld delivered the first hits in the home of the world champions.

The viability, this is, of the very idea of gathering together the best players of Britain and Ireland and saying that for a few weeks they have to distil and drink down in one gulp the best of a tradition that made legends of such as Gareth Edwards, Barry John and Willie John McBride.

In this professional age of minutely calculated tactics, of playing schedules which put the profit motive before the dangers of too many of those hits, too much of the high pressure game and what it does to the appetite and the psychology of the top players.

The dilemma was, it seemed, so much more emotional in the days of Edwards' prime. It is certainly easy to remember his agonising over a lunch in his favourite hideaway, a pub in the Newport valley. The question, as he nosed into his thirties, was whether he should make one last trip to New Zealand, one last battling journey through the land of the long cloud.

"You wonder if the old bones are up to it," said the great man, "whether you should be getting on with the business of tackling the rest of your life. Then you think, 'God, this is probably my last chance to wear the shirt ... it will never come again'."

Today's questions are somewhat different and have been addressed by O'Connell in a code that does not require the enlightening assistance of MI5. The Irishman, a victim of the chaos and hubris which wrecked the last Lions tour in New Zealand four years ago to the point of day-in, day-out embarrassment, had scarcely set foot on South African soil before raising the spectre of that disaster.

His players, he said, had to understand the nature of their challenge. In fact, they had to do more than that. They had to announce whether or not in the future the Lions concept will be seen to be worth the trouble as physical demands on the front-rank players intensify. Indeed, you could compress his sentiments into one haunting line: is this the last time the Lions go in search of that old glory?

Said O'Connell: "I think it is more important than ever that when the players wear the jersey on this tour that they live up to the tradition and the history of it. I think when you look back at some of those who wore the British and Irish Lions jersey down the years you see they were great players.

"Maybe in 2005 we didn't live up to that. A lot of things were against us on the tour but, at the same time, I don't think we did the tradition proud. I think that, for me personally, looking at 2005 is a big motivation."

Whether some of the new young blood feels the same surge towards regained pride is the vital question now, though traditionalists will no doubt take some reassurance from the fact that when young James Hook got a late call to duty, he was apparently struck by some awe that he would be walking in at least some of the footsteps of such mighty predecessors as John and Phil Bennett.

The key is whether such as O'Connell, and his compatriot Brian O'Driscoll, whose own captaincy in 2005 was smashed in one brutally early incident in the first Test in Christchurch, can indeed conjure such dedication and spirit in the shadow of a misadventure which refuses to be softened by the years. Long before the end of the 3-0 "blackwash" the Lions had become objects of scorn in New Zealand.

The All Black coach, Graham Henry, could not conceal his distaste for the Lions' reaction to the injury of O'Driscoll, which was orchestrated by Tony Blair's former spin doctor Alastair Campbell in a specially called post-game briefing. Henry vehemently opposed the suggestion that his captain, Tana Umaga, and the hooker Keven Mealamu had deliberately "speared" the Lions captain, and he wondered when his opponents would engage with the classic Lions challenge of binding together in the most difficult circumstances.

Inevitably, the Lions coach, Sir Clive Woodward, took most of the critical hits. The mastermind of England's drive to the World Cup triumph of 2003, Woodward brought a massive staff and a lordly belief that he was taking Lions rugby into another dimension. The effect was quite the opposite. From the All Blacks there was the unavoidable sense that they believed something had been broken, that if they faced challenges in the future they were unlikely to come from the northern hemisphere.

Ironically, on this Lions tour South Africa's ascendancy in the world game is likely to be put at most risk by the New Zealander Warren Gatland. As the forwards coach, the man who has returned Wales to competitive levels that could not have been dreamt of a few years ago, Gatland has for some time kept his acute eye trained on the brilliance of a South African pack which so underpinned the World Cup triumph in France two years ago.

He insists he will put away the pyrotechnic psychological warfare that backfired so controversially, and negatively, when he talked of his Welsh players' dislike of the Irish. Rather, he says, he will be homing in on the most threatening points of South African forward strength – and offering the most feasible antidotes. In this his key ally will be his assistant coach with Wales, Shaun Edwards, whose work so far has turned him into something of a cult hero at the hard edge of coaching circles but whose reputation now faces its most critical test as the Lions' top defensive strategist.

Such, anyway, are some of the details of a most difficult enterprise but all of them, we have to suspect, will be dwarfed by the question that refuses to go away. Can the modern professional rugby player still put on the shirt of another time, and another set of values?

O'Driscoll, who had become the world's most charismatic player when he was awarded the Lions captaincy, thought so before heading to New Zealand. He said it was the greatest honour of his playing life, something that he would have always, and cherish always.

It was a brave and ennobling thought as he ran into the iron embrace of Umaga and Mealamu and a disappointment that some believe he will never truly shake away. Now O'Connell makes a similarly dutiful call for a revival of some of the best of rugby's past. It is one that is surely bound to provoke respect for the instincts of the big man who these last months has come to personify the conviction and spirit of his nation's rugby. Now he seeks a broader, even potentially historic field of influence.

The good news is that already he has proved himself big enough to take on the challenge of stirring the sleeping Lions.