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Favourite son will be fondly remembered by the fans

By George Hook

Published 10/02/2016

Prize guy: Paul O’Connell won two Heineken Cups
Prize guy: Paul O’Connell won two Heineken Cups
In command: Alan Quinlan, Paul O’Connell and Malcolm O’Kelly at the 2003 World Cup

It was inevitable that it would end this way. At Twickenham, when Paul O'Connell collapsed in agony during Ireland's final World Cup pool match against France in October, the horror of his injury was immediately apparent.

Later, when the full extent of the damage was confirmed - a hamstring ripped clear off the bone - it was highly unlikely that O'Connell would ever get to pull on the Toulon jersey.

Even for a man of almost superhuman powers, the potential to make a full recovery from such a serious injury was going to be a step too far.

So, at 36 years of age and with time catching up on a war-torn body, medical science intervened and put an end to O'Connell's French dream.

Read more: Big man Paul O'Connell is by far the greatest leader of them all

Certainly, no player more richly deserved to have a spell in the sun than the great Ireland and Munster captain. After fighting in the trenches in the most physically demanding of positions for 17 years, O'Connell was entitled to a handsome pay packet in the south of France.

That it hasn't come to pass is indeed a great pity.

Ireland will remember him fondly. When O'Connell himself reflects on his career, he will be able to draw from a well of thrilling moments for province and country.

Heineken Cup titles with Munster in 2006 and 2008, Celtic leagues, Six Nations crowns with Ireland, including the Grand Slam in 2009, a Lions tour as captain and multiple man of the match awards. A World Cup semi-final spot is perhaps the only missing accolade on a decorated rugby CV.

O'Connell was never the biggest man. A tall, naturally thin frame was a source of constant struggle for a man who fought every day to make himself into the giant we all came to know.

Stories of his attention to detail are famous across the rugby world. Ronan O'Gara still talks about O'Connell's influence in the dressing room.

The great Victor Matfield yesterday attested to the toughest opponent he had ever come across. Famously, O'Connell was even prepared to learn Afrikaans to get a jump on the Springboks' lineout.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail... O'Connell played by that code. As for his future? A coaching career beckons. The attributes that made O'Connell an influential and inspirational leader on the pitch will transfer to the training ground.

Perhaps Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast might snap him up for the vacant forwards coach position in Grenoble? The French dream might still come to pass, after all.

Ultimately, all roads will lead back to Munster. Because even though O'Connell was headed for Toulon, his heart was always with his province.

And when Anthony Foley is eventually moved on, what odds on Munster's favourite son coming back to take over the job and restore some much needed confidence?

That might take some time, but with O'Gara equally well placed and successful at Racing 92, the future of Munster looks bright.

For now, rugby bids farewell to a stalwart. Ireland will be a long time finding O'Connell's like again, but his standards in excellence and passion will leave a lasting legacy. And though his move to Toulon has ultimately been scuppered by injury, it is perhaps fitting that he finished his playing career in the green of Ireland.

O'Connell will always be remembered as a legend of the game and a superb ambassador for club and country.

Belfast Telegraph

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