Paul O'Connell: 'Johnson was an inspiration to me'

When the Lions last toured South Africa, another hard man was captain – and a certain teenager was mightily impressed, as he tells Chris Hewett
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The way Paul O'Connell tells it, a captain's tour of duty with the British and Irish Lions never occurred to him until he found Ian McGeechan on the other end of the phone a little over a week ago. Even then, he could not bring himself to take it seriously. One or two of his more mischievous Munster colleagues had been bombarding him with hoax calls for weeks, and it was only when he remembered how useless they were at fake accents that he sat down and listened to the wonderful words emerging from the earpiece.

"Of course, I was sworn to secrecy," he said, before running through a long list of people he could not help telling. "I think my mother found things difficult over the weekend, lying to everyone." Mrs O'Connell can stop spinning her yarns as of now. Her son, more of a top-class swimmer than a front-line rugby player for much of his youth, stands confirmed as the eighth post-war Irish leader of the most celebrated touring side in all of rugby.

O'Connell was born in Limerick, not so much a union hotbed as a place of sporting hellfire, in the autumn of 1979, so he was still in his teens when the Lions last ventured into Springbok country under the highly successful leadership of Martin Johnson – perhaps the player he resembles more than any other. "I don't know Martin that well, but I certainly remember watching him play on that tour," he said. "I was very impressionable back then and it left a mark on me. Anything you can take from some one like that, you do. He was a fabulous player, absolutely someone to be admired, and yes, I'll probably speak to him before we travel. All you need is one or two little gems to spark something in your mind, and the call is worthwhile."

Such is Munster's current mastery of the European scene – winners of the Heineken Cup twice in the last three seasons, semi-finalists again this time round, overwhelming favourites for the Magners League title – that it is tempting to wonder whether O'Connell has ever done anything wrong. But it has not always been plain sailing. Along with virtually all of his countrymen, he messed up at the 2007 World Cup. There were also problems on the last Lions trek, to New Zealand four years ago.

Clive Woodward, the head coach, threw everything at that tour: unparalleled amounts of money, unprecedented numbers of players. It went belly-up almost from the start, and O'Connell is still uncomfortable with the memory. "Clive tried something different, and with New Zealand being as attritional as it is, I suppose his ideas looked good on paper," he said. "But the trade-off with taking so many players and coaches was that we didn't get to gel as a team. I did enjoy the hard work and I think the experience improved me. Certainly, a lot of us bounced back well from it: I won the Heineken Cup with Munster the following year. But it was hard. No one's career is up, up up."

With 13 of his countrymen around him this summer – always assuming there is no significant injury trauma in the raft of knockout and must-win matches between now and the end of the northern hemisphere campaign – O'Connell will not find himself scratching around for a familiar face. Even the two non-regulars in the Ireland team, the eye-catching back Keith Earls and the leathery old flanker Alan Quinlan, are like brothers to him. Earls comes from the same neck of the woods – "I played with his father, which makes me sound very old," O'Connell said – while Quinlan, from Tipperary, has given everything to the Munster cause for longer than anyone cares to remember.

But there is more to a stint as Lions captain than persuading good mates to play out of their skins. There are eight Englishmen for the captain to integrate, not to mention a large Welsh contingent, including Warren Gatland. During the build-up to last month's Six Nations decider in Cardiff, it was Gatland who attempted to disorientate the Irish with a barrage of sledgehammer verbals. O'Connell was less than impressed, and in the immediate aftermath of his country's triumph, he treated himself to a pointed sentence or two of his own. Will the two men get along, now they are fighting in common cause?

"It was a big match, there was a lot at stake and a few things were said," he replied. "Warren clipped us a few times, I clipped him. But he's a serious coach and I respect his knowledge. There has been no need for us to kiss and make up." That comes as a relief to us all.

There are those who claim that O'Connell has yet to produce his best rugby outside the regular confines of Heineken Cup and Six Nations, and they may not be far wrong. There again, Johnson was some way short of the player England came to love and the rest came to fear when he led the Lions in '97. That series against the Boks was the making of the man who would subsequently lift the Webb Ellis Trophy on a famous night in Sydney. If O'Connell can emulate him this summer, who knows what he and Ireland might achieve in New Zealand in 2011?

Lions leader: O'Connell's vital stats

Born: 20 October, 1979, Limerick

Height: 6ft 6in Weight: 17st, 7lb

Club career:

2001-present: Munster (99 apps, 80 pts; 16 tries)

He captained Munster to victory in the 2007-08 Heineken Cup.

International career:

2002-present: Ireland (62 caps)

2005: British and Irish Lions (3 caps)

Scored last ever international try at the old Lansdowne Road.