Ireland's warrior captain Paul O'Connell exits Test arena before living out Rugby World Cup dream... but legendary lock fittingly goes out fighting

  • Paul O'Connell's Ireland career has been ended by a hamstring injury
  • Lock was unable to finish Ireland's victory against France on Sunday
  • He will now miss the chance to play for the only prize that eludes him 
  • Second row partner Donncha O’Callaghan said he's going out the right way
  • Italy captain Sergio Parisse called O'Connell the ‘best second row ever’
  • Ireland face Argentina in the World Cup quarter-finals on Sunday at 1pm 
  • Rugby World Cup 2015: CLICK HERE for all the latest news and more 

By Chris Foy for the Daily Mail

Published: 19:08 EST, 13 October 2015 | Updated: 19:08 EST, 13 October 2015

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As the tributes to Paul O’Connell arrived from all parts on Tuesday, one recurring word of praise stood out: Warrior.

That was the role the mighty lock performed with distinction over so many years for Munster, Ireland and the Lions. Providing he makes a full recovery from surgery on his wrecked hamstring, the 35-year-old can enjoy a club swansong with European champions Toulon, but his Test career has been ended earlier than he would have hoped by the injury he suffered against France on Sunday.

O’Connell tried to walk off the Millennium Stadium pitch but while his spirit was as willing as ever, his leg was too damaged to take the strain.

Paul O'Connell has been described as a warrior and an inspiration as his Ireland career ends prematurely

Paul O'Connell has been described as a warrior and an inspiration as his Ireland career ends prematurely

Irish captain O'Connell charges into the France defence in what would be his last game in Ireland's green

Irish captain O'Connell charges into the France defence in what would be his last game in Ireland's green

He retires with 108 caps for Ireland over 13 years, only behind Brian O’Driscoll (133) and Ronan O’Gara (128)

He retires with 108 caps for Ireland over 13 years, only behind Brian O’Driscoll (133) and Ronan O’Gara (128)

So he was carried away on a stretcher and all the desperate Irish prayers on his behalf were in vain. Another talisman and national treasure is gone. A year after Brian O’Driscoll succumbed to retirement, the titan of the pack has followed him out of the national team for good.

O’Connell wanted to lead his country to the final and fulfil his solemn declaration that Ireland could win the Webb Ellis Cup, but now he must hope his team-mates can make his vision come true without their figurehead to provide inspiration and reassurance.

There was a sense on Tuesday that his story shouldn’t have ended this way, but that was not the view of O’Connell’s long-time second-row partner for Munster and Ireland, Donncha O’Callaghan.

Worcester’s new recruit told Sportsmail: ‘It’s the way Paul O’Connell was always going to leave - with his body on the line. You dream of a fairytale finish but he competes for everything and that’s what he was doing. He is a warrior so for him to go out like that is fitting.’

According to O’Callaghan, the principal quality which has made his erstwhile team-mate a revered figure is the way he sets the highest standards for himself and those around him. A pass mark is never enough when a distinction is within reach. 

O'Connell suffered a serious hamstring injury on Sunday and  tried to walk off the Millennium Stadium pitch

O'Connell suffered a serious hamstring injury on Sunday and tried to walk off the Millennium Stadium pitch

But while the lock, who turns 36 on October 20, tried to tough it out his leg was too damaged to hold his weight

But while the lock, who turns 36 on October 20, tried to tough it out his leg was too damaged to hold his weight

O'Connell is wheeled off the pitch in Cardiff before his team completed a 24-9 win over France to top Pool D

O'Connell is wheeled off the pitch in Cardiff before his team completed a 24-9 win over France to top Pool D

CAPTAIN'S MAGIC NUMBERS

3 SIX NATIONS TITLES, winning the Grand Slam in 2009 and championships in 2014 and 2015.

108 IRELAND CAPS in a 13-year career. Only Brian O’Driscoll (133) and Ronan O’Gara (128) have more.

28 MATCHES AS CAPTAIN, the third-most of any Ireland skipper behind O’Driscoll (83) and Keith Wood (36).

62.96 WIN PERCENTAGE with Ireland, tasting victory 67 times, losing 39 and drawing two.

7 BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS CAPS between 2005 and 2013, captaining the side in the 2-1 defeat by South Africa in 2009.

2 HEINEKEN CUPS, winning his first with Munster against Biarritz in 2006 before captaining the Irish club to glory against French giants Toulouse two years later.

- Compiled by JAMES RESTALL 

‘Being around him made you a better player,’ said O’Callaghan. ‘He always expected so much more of you. He just thought it was the norm. It’s amazing how, at the top level, he could get five or six per cent more out of players.

‘He has a competitive streak like you’ve never seen. He just wants to win everything. The guy can’t understand if he doesn’t master something — he’s beyond a perfectionist.

‘We used to have a list for Monopoly in the team room and everyone’s name would go up until Paulie’s name went up, then the rest would come off. They knew he was going to turn it into a big competition and he’d be desperate to win!’

The young O’Connell showed considerable potential as a swimmer and golfer, but he turned away from those pursuits when it became apparent greatness would elude him. Rugby was the outlet for his towering ambition.

His fervent commitment, attention to detail and fierce intensity made him one of the pre-eminent forwards of the modern era and ensured a stellar CV which includes a Grand Slam, Six Nations titles and Heineken Cup glory.

There were 115 Test caps including seven for the Lions, who he captained on the tour of South Africa in 2009. That honour gave way to despair caused by a 2-1 series defeat, but it was an episode that showed the warrior had empathy, as his fellow Munster stalwart Ronan O’Gara realised.

Donncha O'Callaghan (from left) celebrates Munster's second Heineken Cup triumph in 2008 with O'Connell and Alan Quinlan - long-time second row partner O'Callaghan says O'Connell is going out like the warrior he is

Donncha O'Callaghan (from left) celebrates Munster's second Heineken Cup triumph in 2008 with O'Connell and Alan Quinlan - long-time second row partner O'Callaghan says O'Connell is going out like the warrior he is

O'Connell has seven British and Irish Lions caps to his name between 2005 and 2013, and was captain in 2009

O'Connell has seven British and Irish Lions caps to his name between 2005 and 2013, and was captain in 2009

O'Connell raises the Lions' prize for beating Australia in 2013 with long-time Ireland cohort O'Driscoll

O'Connell raises the Lions' prize for beating Australia in 2013 with long-time Ireland cohort O'Driscoll

He also won three Six Nations, including 2009's Grand Slam, and recent victories in 2014 and 2015 (above)

He also won three Six Nations, including 2009's Grand Slam, and recent victories in 2014 and 2015 (above)

‘In Pretoria six years ago, he had the opportunity for immortality as captain of the Lions,’ said O’Gara. ‘But in the second Test I destroyed that dream for him by giving away the winning Boks penalty. Paul was captain and it would have been his greatest achievement in the game.

‘Coming off the field, he had the respect and decency, the greatness, to put his arm around someone who just wanted his world to end right there. He was thinking of me when anyone else could have said, “What were you doing there?”’

Team-mates and opponents alike described him as a ‘gentleman’, while those who played with him were also in awe of his ability to set an emotional tone for matches.

Ireland hooker Sean Cronin said: ‘I’ve nipped to the toilet a couple of times to dry my eyes. But he scares me more than he makes me cry.’

Italy captain Sergio Parisse called him the ‘best second row ever’. All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter said: ‘The guy is world-class; such a competitor and an absolute beast.’ 

Victor Matfield, South Africa’s lock legend, called him ‘probably the best player I’ve played against in my career’.

Like O’Driscoll before him, O’Connell leaves a gaping hole in Irish rugby as he takes his place in the pantheon. 

 

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