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Tributes pour in saying farewell to giant of the game

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Munster Rugby described Paul O'Connell as "a leader, a lion, a legend" following his retirement yesterday.

The 36-year-old confirmed he was hanging up his boots following medical advice because of an horrific hamstring injury picked up playing for Ireland at the World Cup last year.

His latest injury setback was one bridge too far the giant of Irish rugby.

"Since sustaining the injury at the World Cup I have been fully focused on returning to fitness and starting an exciting new chapter for both myself and my family in Toulon. Unfortunately, this will no longer be possible," he said.

"I have been blessed to be a professional rugby player for over 14 years and to be part of Munster and Ireland teams that have experienced success."

The Limerick man paid tribute to his family.

He added: "Special thanks go to my wife Emily for her unwavering support through the good and the bad, and to my parents Michael and Shelagh.

"Lastly I would like to thank everyone who has supported the teams I've been a part of."

The worlds of sport, politics and academia, as well as friends and former colleagues, all paid tribute to the former Ireland, Munster and Lions captain.

Brian O'Driscoll said that his former team-mate was "simply irreplaceable". He added: "Really disappointing to see Paul O'Connell having to retire. Sensational career in red and green."

Munster legend Ronan O'Gara also paid tribute to O'Connell, along with young Irish ace Tadgh Furlong, fellow Limerickman Conor Murray and University of Limerick President Professor Don Barry.

O'Connell was unveiled as a Toulon player after last year's World Cup but never got to feature for the French side as he struggled to regain his fitness.

O'Gara said: "Something beautiful and fitting, the great man retires as a one club man. The pride of Limerick and a role model for the rest of the country."

His former Munster and Ireland team-mate Donnacha Ryan said he was disappointed that O'Connell's move to France never materialised but added it was a privilege to play with him.

"It was humbling to be a student of his and an incentive to stay in Munster and sacrifice game time in order to have the ability to train with him," said Ryan. "He'll be successful with whatever he does with the next part of his life."

His alma mater, the University of Limerick (UL), awarded him an honorary doctorate last year and wished Dr O'Connell a happy retirement.

UL President Professor Don Barry said: "I wish him a happy and healthy retirement and I know I speak on behalf of our entire community."

Meanwhile, Dr Eanna Falvey says he will never forget O'Connell's final act on the rugby pitch when his hamstring had been ripped from the bone after being hit from either side by Wesley Fofana and Pascal Papé in that World Cup clash with France.

The half-time whistle went and the Munster second-row remained on his back, hands on his head. On came the stretcher, but he refused to give in; trying one more time to walk from the arena before admitting defeat.

"He was obviously really injured and knew he was in trouble," Falvey recalled.

"He actually didn't want to come off on a stretcher which tells you an awful lot about the guy. He tried to stand up and was in absolute agony and had to lie down again.

"You're in a situation where, when you've worked out what's wrong with him on the pitch and the best thing was to take him off the field on a stretcher but you have to respect the person, there's an injured player, an injured man and a man; you have to treat all of those three things.

"I started with Munster in 2003, I know Paul well and have been trucking together with him an awful long time now."

The bravery that marked his work on the pitch was matched by the intense drive for standards off it, but there was always scope for some levity at the right times.

A week later, the totemic lock was confined to the stands having flown back to Cardiff for the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. Beside him was young gun Furlong who hadn't made the cut for the match-day 23.

"Naturally enough the camera always kept panning to Paulie," the New Ross native recalled with a smile. "The first time we flashed up on the big screen, he just turned to me and said: 'We made it kid'."

"I'm a bit envious that I didn't get more time with him, more campaigns with him, like some of the other lads.

"It was him and Brian O'Driscoll who were the constant 'poster boys' of Irish rugby for a long time.

"He is someone, growing up, that I definitely looked up to. He was constant in the Irish team, always performing well.

"To come in here and meet him, play with him, train with him and learn from him was invaluable."

While Furlong was left frustrated at the little time he shared with O'Connell, Murray has grown up in the same dressing room as his fellow Limerickman and witnessed his famous competitive nature at close hand.

"It wasn't just what you saw on the rugby pitch. It was like that when he was playing table tennis or any little warm-up games before training. That was just the way he was," the scrum-half said.

"He was constantly having little chats with No.9s, No.10s, centres, going over what they were doing and what he expected of them.

"He really just gelled the team together and then you knew he was going to go to war physically and set a high standard for himself and for you to follow."

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