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Rugby World Cup: Rob Kearney's emotional tribute to Ireland captain Paul O'Connell

By Jonathan Bradley

Despite the apparent end of his Test career, Paul O'Connell remained a leader to the last according to his long-time international team-mate Rob Kearney.

As Ireland's second-half performance sealed a resounding victory over France and top spot in Pool D on Sunday, their captain was facing up to the realisation that he would likely never again pull on the green jersey he has worn with such distinction since his debut all the way back in 2002.

Rather than wallow in despair over the premature end to a glittering international career however, a beaming O'Connell was there to greet his victorious team-mates at the final whistle.

"Yeah (I feel sad for Paul), probably the fact that he's been around more than any of us," said Kearney yesterday.

"It is difficult, I felt awful for him but it was great to see the sheer delight on his face after game in terms of what we'd achieved as opposed to feeling sorry for himself.

"It was brilliant to see and a great sign of the man that he was able to put his own woes behind him and think of the team's achievement first."

Chris Henry spoke on Sunday of the rousing team talk given to the squad by the Limerick native pre-match, perhaps the last he will ever give to an Ireland team and one that had listeners on the verge of tears, and Kearney revealed that he was equally inspirational when all was said and done at the Millennium Stadium.

"What did he say? He was just delighted, he was beaming from ear to ear," he said.

"When you consider that he was so happy and ecstatic after the game and the pain he was in at half-time.

"It's small little moments like that make changing rooms after games really special."

Emotions were clearly running high in the camp this week.

Ian Madigan's tears at the final whistle have led to him being christened 'Gazza' by team-mates after the former England footballer's floods at Italia '90, but Louth man Kearney feels that the performances of Madigan and Iain Henderson helped settle any apprehension over the premature exit of both their leader and Johnny Sexton who picked up an abductor problem after just 25 minutes.

"I think at half-time, there was probably mixed emotions a little bit when you're seeing your captain injured heavily and losing your out-half and your star man," he said.

"You're filled with a huge amount of confidence as well when you see the likes of Ian Madigan and Iain Henderson come in too.

"Their contribution to the game had a massive effect on the outcome for us."

Even if the list of injuries to key personnel has taken its toll, the win over Les Bleus was Ireland's most satisfying at a World Cup since the upset of Australia four years ago but Kearney reiterated that focus has already switched to facing Argentina in the quarter-finals back in Cardiff on Sunday.

"You never like to lose players through injury, especially the calibre of some of those players, and your captain as well," said the man who was part of that team who beat the Wallabies in 2011 only to lose to Wales in the last eight.

"It does take a gloss off it, but I think when you're in tournaments like this, the physicality is so big.

"You can see other teams suffering from it too.

"You don't have a huge amount of time to sit around and think about it.

"We've got another huge match in six days' time now, we can't sit around and think too much about it, we've got to keep looking forward and get on with it, as cruel as it might sound.

"We were here four years ago, topping the group.

"Everyone thought we were brilliant, we thought we were brilliant and we went out and got pumped by a really good Wales team. So we don't have much time to sit around and think about this great performance we had yesterday, we have to move on really quickly.

"Bar the Australians the Argentineans have probably been the most impressive side.

"Their ability to score points has been very, very strong throughout the tournament. We've got to make sure we're next-task focused as quickly as we can be.

"We're a very different team from four years ago.

"Our mental strength on how we approach games on a week-to-week basis has improved massively.

"And again this will be a big test for us in terms of how much of a week-to-week team we actually are."

The two-time Lion did however spare a thought for Peter O'Mahony who yesterday morning became the second player definitively ruled out of Ireland's World Cup following Jared Payne's diagnosis of a fractured foot on Saturday.

O'Mahony, Ireland's starting blindside flanker, damaged knee ligaments and left the field on a stretcher.

The Munsterman was still with the squad yesterday with those that remain having the chance to say their goodbyes over breakfast.

"He was in there at breakfast, so I'm not sure what time he's heading off but everyone got to chat to him and console him a little bit last night," added the elder Kearney.

"There's a massive togetherness in there and everyone is certainly gutted to see him go."

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