Successive injuries to his knee and back had knocked the stuffing out of his game at both club and international level for much of 2012 and when he went in for an operation almost six months ago he was on the verge of writing off a third Lions tour.
But he battled back to fitness, regained his form with Munster in the Heineken Cup and has now been handed the opportunity to lay down a marker to play in a seventh successive Lions Test in Australia.
"Around Christmas, and even two or three weeks afterwards, I didn't think I would be here. So I'm delighted to be captaining the Lions again and it is going to be a very exciting occasion," said O'Connell, who led the Lions to four victories in six games four years ago.
"We've had a few good weeks training already, but it has gone up another level since the Leinster and Leicester players came into camp. Training in Hong Kong has been difficult and the conditions aren't ideal.
"But while we won't be used to it, neither will the Barbarains. We will just have to deal with it.
"It is certainly important to get the tour off to a winning start. In 2009 we didn't feel good after the first game in Rustenburg because we didn't play well. It was a tough game, but at least we got a win."
O'Connell led the Lions into their first and last games on the 2009 tour and was full of sympathy for his successor, Warburton, for missing out on the game against the Baa-Baas.
"I roomed with Sam in the first week and he was already putting his stamp on things. He'll be disappointed at missing the first game," said O'Connell.
"All the players have dived into the challenge and we are a very tight group already and there is a big buzz about making this tour a real success. We want to become a team as quickly as we can and be successful.
"Those players in the UK and Ireland who have won a Test series before are a bit different from everyone else."