O'Connell walks in McBride and Johnson's footsteps

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Precedent as much as form has persuaded the British and Irish Lions selectors to name Ireland lock Paul O'Connell as captain for next month's tour of South Africa.

Ulster lock Willie-John McBride, a giant of the world game, led the Lions to their famous 1974 series win over the Springboks.

England's Martin Johnson, who would partner McBride in a mythical all-time Lions team, captained the 1997 side to victory in the republic.

Now the selectors have turned to O'Connell in preference to Irish team mate Brian O'Driscoll, who this year captained his country to their first grand slam since 1948.

O'Driscoll led the Lions from centre in New Zealand four years ago before his tour ended abruptly through injury in the opening minute of the first test.

Coach Ian McGeechan, a member of McBride's side and coach in 1997, opted for Johnson because of the Leicester man's glowering presence although at that stage he had captained neither club nor country.

O'Connell commands a similar presence with Munster, the European club champions, although he has not imposed himself on the international arena to the same extent.

The selectors are also acutely aware of the stark physical challenge facing teams who tour South Africa, a confrontation even more elemental than that confronting visitors to New Zealand.

South African forwards vary between the huge and the massive and winning at least parity up front is crucial, an additional reason for positioning the captain at the heart of the battlefield.

O'Connell, 29, first demonstrated the drive which was to take him to the pinnacle of international rugby as a teenager when he decided he was going to become a world class swimmer.

Swimming, a sport for obsessives, occupied much of his waking life although he still found time to play rugby and Gaelic football.

He then turned to golf, another sport demanding total commitment for the serious player, before finally moving on to full time rugby.

Success came quickly for the ginger-headed Limerick man, who was educated in the dark arts of tight forward play by some of his province's more seasoned practitioners.

O'Connell scored a try on his Six Nations debut against Wales in 2002.

He impressed as a member of Ireland's 2003 World Cup team and toured New Zealand in the ill-fated 2005 Lions side.

O'Connell played in each of the three tests, although in common with several of his team mates he did not enhance his reputation and was part of a shambolic Lions lineout in the first test in Christchurch.

The following year he was the only European player nominated for the International Rugby Board's player of the year award and has steadily developed his game to the point where he is now a first choice for the Lions with his athleticism in the lineout, ferocity in the loose and unyielding work ethic in the tight.

"To be selected for a second Lions tour is fantastic and to be asked to captain the squad is a tremendous honour," O'Connell said in a statement on Tuesday.

"The tour to South Africa represents a huge challenge for the touring party as we will be playing against the world champions."