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O'Connell to lead the Lions

PRECEDENT as much as form has persuaded the British and Irish Lions selectors to name Ireland lock Paul O'Connell as captain for next month's tour of South Africa.

Ulster lock Willie-John McBride, a giant of the world game, led the Lions to their famous 1974 series win over the Springboks. England's Martin Johnson, who would partner McBride in a mythical all-time Lions team, captained the 1997 side to victory in the republic.

Now the selectors have turned to O'Connell over Irish teammate Brian O'Driscoll, who this year captained his country to its first grand slam since 1948.

O'Driscoll led the Lions from center in New Zealand four years ago before his tour ended abruptly through injury in the opening minute of the first test.

Coach Ian McGeechan opted for Johnson because of the Leicester man's glowering presence although at that stage he had captained neither club nor country.

O'Connell commands a similar presence with Munster, the European club champion, although he has not imposed himself on the international arena to the same extent.

The selectors are also acutely aware of the stark physical challenge facing teams who tour South Africa, a confrontation even more elemental than that confronting visitors to New Zealand.

South African forwards vary between the huge and the massive and winning at least parity up front is crucial, an additional reason for positioning the captain at the heart of the battlefield.

Young Ireland back Keith Earls, with just one international start to his name, was also the surprise selection.

Munster's Earls, normally a center but who can also play fullback, made his debut last November and has two caps but did not feature in Ireland's grand slam-winning Six Nations campaign.

The 21-year-old continued a long tradition of the Lions picking an unexpected "bolter" and a call-up for 35-year-old giant England lock Simon Shaw showed that McGeechan also appreciates substance and experience.

Also on the plane for South Africa will be inexperienced wingers Leigh Halfpenny of Wales and Ugo Monye of England, Ireland back rower Alan Quinlan and England center Riki Flutey, who played against the Lions in a provincial game in his native New Zealand four years ago.


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