British & Irish Lions
Gatland welcomes O'Connell's return to fitness
ESPN Staff
March 22, 2013
Ireland's Paul O'Connell celebrates his side's historic win over Australia, Australia v Ireland, Rugby World Cup, Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand, September 17, 2011
Could Ireland lock Paul O'Connell soon be celebrating a return to the international stage with the British & Irish Lions? © Getty Images

British & Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland has handed Ireland lock Paul O'Connell a timely boost ahead of his return from injury by insisting that veteran lock is in contention for a place in his squad for the forthcoming tour to Australia.

O'Connell underwent a back operation in January to correct a bulging disc and was originally expected to be sidelined until April. But having come through a an 'A' clash unscathed last week he has been named in the Munster side for Saturday's RaboDirect Pro12 meeting with Connacht with Gatland insisting it is not too late for him to force their way into the tour reckoning.

"The older players with a bit more experience have the upper hand because they have that behind them, don't they?" Gatland told the Irish Examiner. "We know a lot about Paul O'Connell. We know what he brings to the party so we will be keeping a pretty close eye on him."

Gatland also opened the door for fellow injured stars such as Ireland's Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo and Wales' Dan Lydiate. "Someone like Tommy Bowe, if he gets back from injury, Dan Lydiate as well. There is a young, talented player in Simon Zebo - is he going to run out of time? We'll keep a close eye on these sort of players over the next six weeks.

"We looked at the Six Nations in terms of form but we have got to be aware - and I've been involved in the Six Nations for a number of years - to know it's a tournament of confidence. Win a couple and you can go on and win it. You lose a couple and you can have a poor Six Nations.

"We've seen how decimated the Irish team have been with injuries. You've got to take into account everything. For sure, some of those players are disappointed with the way they finished but you have got to keep everyone in mind and not rule them out."

Gatland also revealed he had been asked to name his touring squad a week earlier than the preferred date of April 30 but put his foot down because of the important lessons he can learn from watching players perform in the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finals.

"We came under a bit of pressure to name the squad a week earlier from the suppliers who have to get a lot of the gear out, get the players suits done and stuff," Gatland said. "We pushed it [selection] out a week because I wanted a weekend that potentially could be significant, be it in Europe or the Amlin Cup, where there will be positions that are still up for grabs. It gives players coming back from injury an opportunity. It is not just the players coming back from injury, there will be a significant number of players that will pick up injuries as well.

"When you get to the quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals and you look at the quality of sides there, I don't think there's a lot of difference between the Amlin and the Heineken Cups. Sometimes to make the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup needs luck, with weather conditions or whatever.

"Looking at the quarter-final match-ups for the Amlin, they're fantastic for us when you look at Leinster, Munster and Ulster being involved and a few of the English clubs as well. I think we won't see a massive amount of difference between the sides."

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