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Rugby World Cup: A heartbreaking exit for Ireland captain Paul O'Connell

By Jonathan Bradley

It was never meant to end like this. Rugby players rarely get to finish on their own terms but even still this was a sad end to the Ireland career of one of the side's truly legendary figures.

Set to move to Toulon after the World Cup, although it now remains to be seen when he will available on the Cote D'Azur, the dream scenario since his move to the Top14 was announced had been that Joe Schmidt's captain would end his Test career on October 31, hoisting the Webb Ellis Trophy aloft after a victorious role in the World Cup final.

As we wait for the belated confirmation however, it seems that the last we'll see of O'Connell, the first man to lead Ireland to back-to-back Six Nations titles since 1949, in green came as he departed on a stretcher from the win against France on Sunday.

A totemic figure for Ireland since his try-scoring debut against Wales in the Six Nations of 2002, it was a game he still remembers little of after picking up a concussion but the performance will be recalled fondly by those in attendance for years to come.

Since becoming a central cog in the forward pack, O'Connell's dedication to the cause has been well documented, the famous story of his learning of Afrikaans to crack Springboks line-out codes in 2009 an oft-told anecdote.

The Young Munster clubman, a team he would turn out for whenever permitted over the years, was also the mastermind behind the pack's domination of Australia in the last World Cup.

The forwards meeting when O'Connell gathered his troops to relay the gameplan saw him do so with a cat's whiskers inked onto his face after a team forfeit.

The 35-year-old, you imagine, is one of few figures in the game who could command the attention of an entire room while masquerading as a feline.

Read more:

Iain Henderson: I'm ready to step into World Cup breach 

Rob Kearney talked yesterday of how the smiling face of their captain greeted them as they came off the field against France, so determined was he not to allow the achievement of the win be dampened by injuries to key contributors.

It's a mentality already seen on the last Lions tour when, having been in imperious form for the side he captained in 2009, he broke his arm in the first Test and was denied the thrill of being on the field when a first series win since 1997 was clinched against the Wallabies.

Still, he remained down under and cheered on his team-mates, even if he has never been one of the sport's greatest spectators.

When missing out on the Six Nations opener against Scotland two seasons ago thanks to a late chest infection, he cut a frustrated figure watching on in the Aviva Stadium. He fired a text to Stephen Ferris expressing his sympathy that the Ulsterman had been in a similar position with such frequency over the previous seasons.

Looking on from afar will now be the enforced brief of the skipper, however, and in his absence Ireland are missing both a stalwart of the set-piece and an inspirational leader.

Rory Best has already spoken of how the senior players in the side must step up in O'Connell's absence and, while Jamie Heaslip will be restored to the captaincy, the Ulster skipper is one of those who will be relied upon to shoulder the burden.

The loss of another provincial captain, Peter O'Mahony, to a knee injury is a further blow but in Best, Heaslip, and the likes of Rob Kearney, Mike Ross and Tommy Bowe, there are plenty of seasoned campaigners to guide Ireland into this weekend's quarter-final against Argentina and, they hope, beyond.

In the engine room, if replacing O'Connell's contribution is a nigh on impossible task then at least there can be few better men to try than Iain Henderson.

Having started on the bench against France, a surprising move after his starring role throughout this tournament but one that Schmidt had stated was with the last eight in mind, Henderson was superb in his 40 minutes of action.

Throughout the tournament, he has seemed a player ready to take the world by storm and all eyes will again be on him on Sunday afternoon in the Millennium Stadium.

In the immediate aftermath of the French win, Henderson reflected that he would not look to replicate O'Connell but carve out his own niche and that is the correct approach.

Never likely to provide similar impact at the set-piece or, given his age, in terms of leadership, Henderson displayed the full range of his destructive talents against Les Bleus, just as he had done against Italy the week before.

Fans will never forget O'Connell's contribution to Ireland in recent years, and nor should they, but repeat that against the Pumas this weekend and the loss may just be that little bit easier to stomach come Sunday evening.

Belfast Telegraph

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