PAUL O’CONNELL WILL lead out the British & Irish Lions for their tour opener against the Barbarians tomorrow but has told TheScore.ie he is already plotting another tour to New Zealand in 2017.
The Munster and Ireland lock, drawing on the indefatigable career of All Black Brad Thorn, admits that there were moments when he doubted whether he would ever make this year’s tour to Australia. However, since a successful return from surgery on a bulging disc in his back, O’Connell has looked at his very best — most notably in the Heineken Cup quarter final win over Harlequins.
“When I got my back operation, I thought I was definitely out of the Lions Tour,” O’Connell admitted. “The boys did so well in getting to the quarters so I was desperate to get back and play as many games as I could at the end of the season.”
With Joe Schmidt set to take over as Ireland coach this Autumn and Brian O’Driscoll committing for [strictly] one more year of rugby, O’Connell is hopeful that the country’s fortunes can pick up, starting with the November Tests against the All Blacks and Australia, and beyond. The ‘one more year’ chants that swayed O’Driscoll will not be needed on the 33-year-old next season.
“I have a goal to play on until the World Cup in 2015,” he told TheScore.ie. ”Whether injury or form intervenes before that, you never know, but that is definitely something that will drive me over the next couple of years.”
O’Connell added, “The last six months was a desperate time for injuries but, at the same time, it allowed the squad to be strengthened. Dave Kilcoyne, Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall have all got that bit of exposure, leading to immense competition for spaces and a deeper squad.
“Joe Schmidt has done really well during his time at Leinster and got them playing great rugby. Brian has been looking great every time he has played. It’s an exciting time for Irish rugby.”
O’Connell consoles Ronan O’Gara afer his final Munster match. (©INPHO/James Crombie)
On 27 April, when Munster narrowly lost their Heineken Cup semi-final to Clermont, Ronan O’Gara glanced at O’Connell in a post-match interview and remarked, “It’d be hard to leave this beauty here next to me.” Three weeks later, the country’s leading points scorer announced his retirement and surprised us all by securing a backs coaching role at Jonny Sexton’s new side, Racing Metro.
O’Connell said, “ROG was planning on going into coaching and so getting such a crucial role with a good club like Racing is fantastic for him. They are eager to climb to the top of the league and of Europe and they picked a great guy for that.”
Saying farewell to a player he shared a rugby pitch for 12 seasons with has given O’Connell further pause for thought about his future. He commented:
Retirement is something every player thinks about when he gets into his 30s. You have to plan and prepare for that but a lot of your thinking is influenced by injuries. I’d love to continue playing until the next Lions Tour [in 2017] but I’m not too sure that would be possible.
“Coaching is something I’d certainly look at. It would be great to stay involved at Munster but whatever level you end up coaching at, it’s important that you can give something back.”
TheScore.ie will be liveblogging the Lions v Barbarians from 11:30am on Saturday.