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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Green giant always led by example

Ireland duty-bound to honour hero O'Connell

Paul O' Connell (David Davies/PA Wire)
Paul O' Connell (David Davies/PA Wire)

Back in 2006, Ronan O'Gara came out publicly to state his ambition to become the second best out-half in the world next to Dan Carter.

The Ireland international took heavy flak for what was considered his arrogance for making so bold a personal statement.

There was one man who saw it differently to just about everyone else - Paul O'Connell.

"He was amused at the thought of someone trying to be the second best in the world," wrote O'Gara in his autobiography.

"Paulie's only desire, his greatest need, is to be the best."

It was the very foundation of an international career that stretched all the way from his try-scoring debut against Wales in February 2002 to his excruciating closing chapter when the hamstring was torn from O'Connell's bone against France last Sunday.

Limerick's finest pulled on the Irish shirt 108 times. He gave his all every time. He knew no other way.

The advent of professionalism has led to the replacement of eye-bulging passion with clear thinking focus. The role of a captain has changed.

So they say.

There is less room for words when actions are most needed. It is about process. It is about structure. It is about systems.

So they say.

Well, Ireland of the not-as-strong as France, not-as-fast as England need to be touching 100 per cent to be competitive, never mind winners.

This is why there was a world of difference between the version of Ireland against Italy and that against France.

For all of Joe Schmidt's brilliance, his technical and tactical nous has to be under-pinned by a baseline brutal commitment to the cause.

O'Connell is old school.

He understands the value of mental and physical preparation and is blessed with a gift for knowing what to say and when to say it.

So they say.

You only had to hear Chris Henry reflect on O'Connell's parting words before that war with France.

"He basically had everyone in tears before the match," said the flanker.

"We talked about being clinical and taking our chances, all these buzz words, but, definitely, we knew it was going to take more from us and we had to go deeper. The words he provided definitely got the best out of everyone."

There are the speeches that lift brothers to another level to do everything they can.

Then, there is the selflessness to put the benefit of others before your personal sadness.

"There's not much I can say here in the next 30 seconds that can give testament to his contribution to Irish rugby and this World Cup," said full-back Rob Kearney.

As always, it was the one-for-all attitude of O'Connell that enabled him to put his loss to one side long enough to embrace Ireland's pulsating victory over France.

"I suppose the fact that he's been around more than any of us at World Cups, it is difficult for him," Kearney said.

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

"That 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.

"He was just delighted. He was beaming from ear-to-ear," he revealed.

Ecstatic

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

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

In 2013, O'Connell was denied the finale of leading The British & Irish Lions to a 2-1 series win in Australia due to a broken arm in the first test.

He refused to bow his head when replaced. He stayed on in a show of support and was there to share in the glory without bleeding for it.

There will be no shot at a first World Cup semi-final for the player who has done most to make it happen.

It is time Ireland showed they are ready to do it without him.

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