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O’Connell Wants Players To ‘Live Up To Lions Tradition’

O’Connell Wants Players To ‘Live Up To Lions Tradition’

The British & Irish Lions began the charm offensive on Monday, with tour captain Paul O’Connell and head coach Ian McGeechan praising Springbok rugby to the hilt. Adopting the underdog role, the pair spoke of just how difficult it is to win a Test series in South Africa.

Speaking to the media for the first time since touching down in Johannesburg, Lions head coach Ian McGeechan talked up the opposition and reflected on the evident rude health of South African rugby.

“That Super 14 semi-final was absolutely brilliant,” said the Scot, referring to the Bulls’ exciting win over the Crusaders on Saturday.

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“I’m sure (the Springboks coach) Peter de Villiers is a very happy man. A lot of their key players are hitting form at exactly the right time.

“The four drop goals (from Morne Steyn) is not a bad way to put you on the front foot, is it?

“South Africa has players in form and they have a settled side. Rugby in this country is in great shape.

“They have a team that’s come through and won the World Cup and established themselves as a force thereafter. They have a very good captain and a very good coaching team.”

McGeechan’s captain Paul O’Connell has played South Africa on four occasions at Test level.

He tasted defeat in successive matches on Ireland’s 2004 summer tour in Bloemfontein and Cape Town, but notably featured in the Ireland sides that beat the ‘Boks at Lansdowne Road in both 2004 and 2006.  .

On Monday the Munster giant spoke of the respect he has for South African rugby and the size of the challenge his Lions face over the next few weeks.

“I played in South Africa in 1999 for the Irish Colleges side and I’ll never forget how big their players were, how fast over hard grounds and how skilful they were,” he said.

“They have a fiery passion about their rugby that’s stronger, more aggressive than Kiwis. There’s nothing to compare with this experience, nothing.

“The closest I can think of in another sport would be the Ryder Cup – but without the blood and bruises.

“You play every game away, you are always in a hostile environment and you are charged with creating a team out of players from varied cultures and playing styles.

“I’ve won the Heineken Cup with Munster, the Leinster boys won it on Saturday, and with Ireland we’ve all ended a 61-year wait for a Grand Slam. But the Lions is the biggest challenge.”

One thing the 2009 Lions seem to have gotten right before they have even kicked a ball on South African soil is the bonding element of the tour, with the emphasis clearly on building a ‘team’ ethic.

Pleased with how last week’s training stint went at Pennyhill Park in Surrey, O’Connell said: “I think there’s a big buzz. We had a great week last week.

“There are a lot fewer people than I was used to four years ago and that’s the best thing about it. Everyone is on the pitch at the same time, everyone is in the gym together and everyone fits into the team room as one.

“I think there’s a lot of good friendships being made, a lot of characters emerging already and that’s going to be a big thing for us.

“Clive (Woodward) tried something different in 2005 which looked good on paper but we struggled. It was a tough tour because so many things were not in our favour.

“We had a very big squad and a very big coaching staff and, straight away, we failed to come together as a team.

“First of all, we have got to be a team. We have got to want to play for each other, first and foremost.

“If you have bonds, you will always be willing to play for others in the team and that will make a big difference.

“We are massive underdogs but we have a smaller coaching staff and a guy who knows the Lions inside out in Ian McGeechan.”

Along with the other survivors from the ‘blackwash’ tour of New Zealand, O’Connell is determined to banish memories of four years ago and restore pride in the famous red jersey.

The Lions have not won a Test series since McGeechan guided the 1997 tourists past the ‘Boks.

Fuelled by a desire to repeat that feat, the 2009 skipper feels his men are very capable of doing so.

“I said a week ago that the talent is there in the group, the coaching is there in the group and now it’s up to us to perform as a team,” O’Connell insisted.

“I think it’s important that when the players wear the jersey on this tour, they live up to the tradition and the history of the jersey.

“I think when you look back at some of the players that have won the British & Irish Lions jersey down the years, there were great players.

“Maybe in 2005 we didn’t live up to that. A lot of things went against us on the tour and at the same time I don’t think we did the tradition proud.

“I think for me personally, looking back at 2005 is a big motivation.

“I know for a few other guys that were on the tour, it’s the same thing. Living up to the tradition of the jersey is a big thing for us.

“A lot of us when we play for our clubs give everything playing for Munster or Ireland. I think the same thing applies when we play for the British & Irish Lions.”