Paul O’Connell’s leadership of the 2009 British & Irish Lions may have had its ups and downs but following Saturday’s 28-9 victory over the Springboks, Ian McGeechan was fulsome in his praise of the Limerick man’s captaincy.
Paul O’Connell led from the front as the Lions ended their tour of South Africa with a memorable defeat of the World champions in Johannesburg.
The three-try triumph saw O’Connell’s men bounce back from the agonising second Test loss in Pretoria and put a spot to the Lions’ seven-match losing streak in Test matches across the 2001, 2005 and 2009 tours.
The result also prevented O’Connell going down in history as the first captain to lead a Lions side to a series whitewash in South Africa, and head coach Ian McGeechan reserved some special praise for his skipper afterwards.
“Paul did a fantastic job. He’s been a great captain and has led the side magnificently,” said McGeechan.
“He’s been very good with the players and tied in with the senior players in setting the right standards. He has been an outstanding captain.
“There was never any danger of this side caving in the last Test. The first five weeks of the tour always mitigated against that happening.
“Paul was instrumental in getting the squad together. It meant that when things went wrong and the pressure came on these players were never going to fall apart.”
For O’Connell, finishing the season with his first Lions Test win in six appearances against New Zealand (3) and South Africa (3) is particularly sweet.
But while obviously happy to avoid a 3-0 series defeat, the Munster and Ireland lock admitted that the regret of not winning the second Test (having been 19-8 up at one stage) will live with him for a long time.
“I started thinking straight away after the final whistle that after we get over enjoying this win, we might be filled with regret. Sport can be cruel,” O’Connell mused.
“We wallowed a bit for two or three days after the second Test. We started talking a lot about the shirt.
“We talked about guys getting their first Lions cap and guys possibly getting their last. By the end of the week we rallied.
“This win is very satisfying. It has been a tough week for everyone, knowing we are out of the series. We really had to dig deep.”
O’Connell praised his team-mates for pulling together for one last ‘big performance’, standing tall at the end of a long, hard season and stepping up to the mark after a string of frustrating, tour-ending injuries.
“Everyone stood up and put in a big performance, not just for the Lions jersey but for the atmosphere we have created as a group.
“It would have been very tough to have come away from here 3-0. I am very proud.”
The respect between O’Connell and his South African counterpart John Smit was obvious at the tour-ending banquet in Johannesburg.
Smit is rightly regarded as one of the best captains of the modern era, having guided the ‘Boks to Rugby World Cup and Lions series glory, and his ability to switch from hooker to tighthead prop has enhanced his reputation as a world class front rower.
The Sharks player was honoured to lead South Africa to a 2-1 series win over the Lions and insisted that the competitiveness and sheer excitement and drama of the 2009 Tests – the ‘Boks won the first two games by five and three points respectively – shows that the Lions concept has a bright future.
“It was an amazing experience from start to finish, from the day they arrived. It is still one of the most prized things rugby has to offer,” Smit said.
“The toughness of game, the competitiveness of the series, how close it was. The Lions have been as competitive as any team we’ve ever played.
“If anything should be kept, the Lions should be kept. There should never, ever be a last Lions tour,”
Speaking at the banquet, O’Connell was clearly proud with what the Lions squad achieved in such a short space of time.
“A trip like this would be easier with your club or your national team because you’d be with people who have shared the highs and lows with you. Essentially, you’d be in a comfortable place,” he said.
“With the Lions, it’s about compromise. It’s about buying 100% into what the thing is about, because if you don’t, the difficulty of creating a side from scratch in such a short time is bound to be too great.
“I think we did build a team here, and while we didn’t win the series – the Springboks have the laurels, and they deserve them – we leave here knowing that the Lions jersey is the best jersey any player can pull on.”
McGeechan also revealed that O’Connell may have borrowed something from the much-fabled amateur era and the glory days of the 1974 tour when trying to gee up his troops for the final week and the third Test.
“A new template for winning Test matches…plenty of alcohol at the start of the week,” said the Scot, with a nod to O’Connell’s attempts to lift spirits after the devastating loss in Pretoria.