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Rugby World Cup: Tributes flow as Paul O'Connell stays on for Argentina clash

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

It will surprise nobody to learn that Paul O'Connell spent yesterday morning in the video analysis room, going through lineouts with Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan.

As Mike McCarthy was winging his way to Cardiff and his former team-mates, fans and opponents took to social media to pay genuine tributes to a legend of the game, the man himself was focused on Argentina's tendency to alternate jumpers in the middle of the line and their capacity to disrupt Ireland's throw.

The World Cup moves on without him as a player, but he is still playing his part.

Ireland will have to move on too. While retired former comrades can think about the fallen skipper, those within the squad can only pause briefly before focusing on the task ahead.

O'Connell would expect nothing less. He doesn't want sympathy, he'd much prefer to have been part of a World Cup-winning effort.

On Sunday, he did everything in his power to play his part. He was in all-action form throughout the first half, carrying the game to France, while hitting as many rucks as he possibly could.

It was at one of those breakdowns that his Ireland career came to a shuddering end. As he tried to get in over the ball, Pascal Pape came in at an angle and hit him hard. O'Connell's right leg had planted and television replays showed the shocking impact of the injury.

His face turned to anguish, but he still tried to get up. He collapsed in agony, holding his hip. Play was going on in the Ireland '22', but for once the captain was not in a position to help.

As he began to receive medical treatment, Keith Earls made a try-saving tackle. As Dr Eanna Falvey handed him the oxygen supply, Robbie Henshaw made a crucial intervention at the ruck - similar to then one O'Connell had attempted - and the half-time whistle went.

The giant Munster lock lay prone on the ground for a good five minutes during the interval, before he raised a thumb to the rousing ovation. Usually the crowd at the Millennium Stadium heads for the bars at half-time, but this time people lingered. They knew it was the end.

It was fitting that Henshaw had made the crucial intervention, as the oldest member of the team exited the stage it was the youngest who stepped up.

"I just think any time he spoke he just managed to say the right thing, every time," the Athlone centre said.

"He'd never repeat himself, it was always something new and always catchy, you'd never lose focus on what he was saying.

"That's one thing that I admired him as well for, just every time he spoke you'd hear a pin drop. He had everyone's full attention and everything was always nailed on for everybody."

After half-time, Henshaw was one of the men who carried the fight to France. Despite his youth, he was comfortable in the arena and part of that is down to the role O'Connell played in his development.

"The first time I met Paulie, he was so welcoming to me as one of the youngest players in the squad and he always took me under his wing, always helped me around the place," he said.

"But he was a truly inspirational leader and obviously it's going to be a massive loss in our team from now on.

"We're just going to have front up and thankfully we have great lads coming in there, and hopefully they'll be able to take over."

When they returned to the dressing room after beating France, O'Connell was beaming; delighted for his team-mates as he put his discomfort to one side.

Now, they must channel their disappointment at losing their captain into a performance against Argentina.

"It's hard to put into words," his long-time second-row partner Devin Toner said. "He will be a massive loss. Everyone knows that. He was the leader of the team, he was the captain, he was the pack leader, he was the brains behind a lot of the forward play.

"But it has happened before that we have lost players going into games, it has happened that we have had to dig deep in our squad and we have a lot of confidence in our squad these days to pull through."

"I know myself I will probably have to put a bit more work in this week in analysis and different stuff if selected but again everyone is going to have to dig deep."

That they will do and from today the management will have to draw under the Paul O'Connell era and begin the process of moving on without him earlier than planned.

But they too are shook by the loss of their liaison in the dressing room with whom they have worked for so long.

"It was an absolute privilege, he is probably one of the true warriors of the game in every aspect," defence coach Les Kiss said of him.

"It is not hard to get emotional when you are talking about what he has delivered.

"True to the man he is up there, waiting around for his surgery he is on his crutches, he is selfless, offering whatever he can to the group.

"He is up there with the greatest I've ever worked with."

Belfast Telegraph


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