Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Paul O'Connell's absence from Lions could swing series for Australia

Paul O'Connell's tour is over

The euphoria of Saturday night's first Test win was scarcely given time to seep into the extremities before being replaced by the dull ache of disaster.

Paul O'Connell is more than just another player. His loss can be measured by dint of the fact he is not being replaced in the squad.

Warren Gatland has been quick to call replacements into the Lions squad. The roster – discounting O'Connell – now stands at 43 following Tom Court's addition as "cover" for Alex Corbisiero, who was himself a late addition.

That he isn't calling up another second-row is testament to O'Connell's excellence. You cannot replace the irreplaceable. What's the point in even trying?

O'Connell will have been enthused in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's Test win. The standard of the team performance was not great – as Brian O'Driscoll said in the post-game huddle – but for O'Connell it represented just a second ever Test victory.

The win was also the first time in his three tours that the Lions had control of the Series. The relief at the final whistle would have brought a huge sense of relief, a huge release of tension and emotion.

It is probable O'Connell didn't realise the extent of the damage in the immediate aftermath of the victory. Adrenaline would have blunted the pain. Once the x-ray confirmed the worst the realisation that there was a downside to Saturday's win will have punched a hole in the pit of his stomach.

The personal catastrophe for O'Connell should not be overlooked. He has, as he explained last week, been looking forward to this Lions' Tour since before last summer.

"When I was ruled out of Ireland's summer tour it was always in the back of my mind that the Lions' Tour was coming up," he revealed after the game against the Waratahs.

And it was the thought of playing and winning this Series – his last Lions' experience – that helped keep him motivated after undergoing surgery on his back on New Year's eve.

"I always felt that if I could get back early enough I'd be in with a chance of making the Tour."

It is no consolation to O'Connell that he was magnificent on Saturday and that his Lions' Test career has been brought to an end on a victorious note. This Tour was all about playing in a winning Series, not one Test match.

For the collective his loss is an unmitigated disaster. They have lost one of the pillars of their team at a time when they need him most. Australia will be better on Saturday, of that you can be guaranteed.

It is never too comforting to have to look beyond an obvious first-choice player. To have to do so and hope those left in his stead can negate the influence of a player as outstanding as Australian captain James Horwill.

O'Connell's enforced absence has swung the advantage to Australia for the second Test and, indeed, the Series.

Yes, Paul O'Connell is that valuable and is that big a loss.

LINE-OUT

O'Connell is a master tactician in this area. The Lions' have endured issues in this part of their game when he hasn't been playing. When he has played they have had a near perfect return out of touch. Indeed they were 12 from 12 on Saturday night.

It's not just his own outstanding ability in the air that makes him so valuable. He is the line-out operator and is not afraid to be the decoy while calling throws to other players. Tom Croft, Jamie Heaslip and Alun Wyn Jones all took throws on Saturday night.

Horwill is an excellent line-out jumper while blind-side flanker Ben Mowen is the technician. Australia were happy to let the Lions throw uncontested to the front of the line on Saturday night because it meant O'Connell wasn't the target and this was to their advantage.

You can be guaranteed they will pressurise every Tom Youngs' throw on Saturday night in Melbourne because they won't worry as much about the Lions throwing to the middle or the tail in O'Connell's absence.

LEADERSHIP

No matter who is wearing the captain's armband O'Connell is the man who has been calling the shots in the pack. If you watched the games closely it was evident that the players were turning to O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll for direction.

O'Connell has a physical presence that commands respect and, crucially, he leads by example through his on-field actions. It is not fanciful to suggest that he is the team's equivalent of a security blanket!

BREAKDOWN

The fear at this stage is the referees are not going to allow a contest at the breakdown. O'Connell has been consistently effecting three and four turn-overs every game.

He has a phenomenal strength that allows him to keep his feet when dominating the tackled player and the Lions have been reaping the benefits on Tour.

When he does go to ground in contact the ball is always presented well for the scrum half that allows for quick ball to be recycled. The Lions don't have a player with comparable ability.

PRESENCE

Graham Rowntree alluded to it when he said that while being careful not to overshadow captain Sam Warburton the Irishman was an important authoritative presence.

"Paul is hugely influential. In what he does, in what he says and in how he carries himself. He's been a huge pillar for this team. It just his presence that is so effective aside from the fact that he's one of the best players in the world," said Rowntree.

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