Paul O’Connell took his time finding out he’d been appointed captain of the British and Irish Lions after ignoring messages on his mobile phone in the belief they were from an English salesman.
The 29-year-old edged out his Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll in the race to lead the combined Home Unions squad in South Africa, where a 10-match, three-Test tour starts on May 30.
In the process he became the 10th Irishman to captain the Lions in a squad that features a record 14 Ireland players, a testament to the team’s success in winning the Six Nations Grand Slam.
But the lock delayed finding out about his appointment and, when he did, thought it was a wind-up from some of his Munster team-mates rather than a call from Lions coach Ian McGeechan.
“I had a few missed calls last Monday night,” O’Connell explained after the squad was announced on Tuesday.
“They were from an English number but for the last few weeks I’d had a guy phoning me on an English number trying to sell me shares,” he said. “I rang it back and it was Geech but still wasn’t certain — Brian Carney and Frankie Sheahan are always making crank calls.”
“Once I was sure of the accent, we had a chat and he asked me to be captain,” O’Connell said. “The accent was too good to be a hoax.”
O’Connell was particularly pleased by the inclusion of two Munster colleagues in novice center Keith Earls and veteran back-row Alan Quinlan.
“Keith Earls, I played with his father. It’s incredible. He [Keith] used to be on the side of the pitch,” he said.
“Quinny’s had so many close calls with Ireland down the years, he’s very passionate, a great character and absolutely made for the Lions,” O’Connell said.
In selecting O’Connell as his captain, McGeechan is clearly hoping to emulate the success he enjoyed in 1997 when, as Lions coach, he saw his decision to give the captaincy to Martin Johnson — a lock who at the time was not captain of England — was vindicated with a 2-1 series win.
“I don’t really know Martin that well,” O’Connell said. “In 1997, I was 17 and very impressionable. I thought he was a fabulous player.”
This tour will see O’Connell working alongside Warren Gatland, the Wales coach who suggested Ireland were the team his side disliked the most.
After Ireland beat Wales to clinch the Grand Slam, O’Connell replied with a verbal volley of his own.
But he insisted he’d have no problems working alongside the New Zealander, who will be the Lions’ forwards coach in South Africa.
“It was a big match, a big game with a lot at stake. There was a lot said,” O’Connell said.
“He clipped us a few times and I clipped him afterwards. We spoke a few days after on the phone. We had a laugh about it,” he said.
Gatland said: “Paul is a Grand Slam winner and is entitled to say what he likes. He’s a winner.”
Wales, with a victory over Australia, were the only northern hemisphere side to defeat one of the Tri-Nations during November’s international program.
But Gatland said: “These guys [the Lions] have got to have the attitude they are the best of the best. There has been a gulf between the north and south for a number of years but we’ve been working to close the gap. We’ve got to go there with some confidence.”