Royal XV v British & Irish Lions, May 30, Rustenberg
O'Connell eyes legendary status
Graham Jenkins
May 28, 2009
Lions captain Paul O'Connell faces the media in Johannesburg, Lions announce team to face Royal XV, Johannesburg, South Africa, May 28, 2009
Lions captain Paul O'Connell faces the media in Johannesburg earlier today © Getty Images

British & Irish Lions captain Paul O'Connell has refused to rise to the claim by South Africa coach Peter De Villiers that this year's crop of tourists will never achieve legendary status.

The outspoken Springboks boss launched his verbal volley yesterday as the Lions continued their build-up to Saturday's tour opener against a Royal XV in Rustenberg.

"The guys you've got now are good but they will never be like the 1974 Lions. They will never be legends in their own time." he said, in reference to the all-conquering squad, led by Willie John McBride, that went undefeated and inflicting a 3-0 Test series defeat on the Springboks.

O'Connell, who as an Irish lock is walking in the footsteps of McBride, refused to be drawn into a tit-for-tat exchange but underlined his side's desire to write their own piece of Lions history in the eagerly-anticipated three-Test series that kicks off on June 20.

"Probably 1974 is what made those players legends and that is what we are here to do," he said at a press conference in Johannesburg. "If we can win a Test series against South Africa it would be massive for our careers. I think it is the ultimate for any player's career.

"The Lions in South Africa tends to be the pinnacle of any player's career in the four home nations. And for us to come here and win, that's what legends are made of. That is what our goal is. At this stage we may be concentrating on ourselves and it's a little early to be talking about something like that - so we'll continue doing what we're doing.

Lions head coach Ian McGeechan, who intends to give every member of the squad a run in the first three games, has named a strong side for their opener that will see O'Connell lead the Lions for the first time. The line-up includes just eight players who have previously pulled on the famous red jersey but the Lions boss is confident that their intensive preparation will reap reward.

"You do the training, but then it is the players really starting to bring things out of each other. That's where you get the special relationship building in a Lions jersey. You look at any Lions team early on in a tour, it has that period where it is really starting to establish itself.

"We are ready to play. We'll have rough edges and things to work on, we know that, but I think everyone is ready for the game and wanting to play. You want to be bringing the best out of each other. All these players have huge attributes, which is the reason why we selected them in the first place.

"What we are trying to do now is bring all those attributes to the fore in the combinations so it is an effective team performance that is drawing the best out of each player, and a little bit more.

"I think it is really exciting we have a lot of players making their debuts. I remember my debut against Western Transvaal at Potchefstroom in 1974, and it is a career highlight. For young men such as Keith Earls and Jamie Roberts it will be a day to remember, and they will be thrilled to get an early taste of match action on the tour."

O'Connell too sees this game a stepping stone towards the Test series victory they are striving for. "It's about making sure we develop as a team as quickly as we can," added O'Connell. "It is really about ourselves at this stage of the tour. Sure, we want to perform, we want to play well and score tries, but it is all about making steps in the right direction and becoming a team."

Tour manager Gerald Davies will present the players with their shirts ahead of this weekend's game and underlined what he sees as key to a successful tour.

"Every player must believe he has got a chance to play in the Test team," said the former Wales and Lions wing."We want to make a winning statement on Saturday, it's as simple as that. We've got very talented, gifted players that need to gel as a team.

"I am excited by the line-up, and everyone in the tour party is looking forward to getting the playing part of the trip under way."

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