Joe Schmidt has opened up about the “big hole” Paul O’Connell’s absence will leave in Ireland’s World Cup plans.
The inspirational captain was ruled out of the remainder of the tournament on Tuesday with confirmation that he had suffered a severe hamstring injury when playing against France last Sunday and one that will require surgery and a considerable rehabilitation.
It also brought to an end his 13-year Test career.
“He's obviously a leader by nature, but he's also a leader by label,” the head coach told the IRFU’s in-house media. “He's the skipper, so not having his voice and also his incredible example around … the way he plays is the way he prepares and the way he trains and the way he commits to his preparation … you see how committed he is on the pitch.
“You see how he is where he needs to be, he's delivering physically every time he's required to.
“That's going to leave a big hole. He leads our lineouts, he dictates a lot of the play along with Johnny (Sexton) and, for us, we're going to have to manage around that.
“It's incredibly disappointing for Paul as it is for us, because we feel we need his leadership and his playing talent and, at the same time, he would have loved to have finished playing in a knockout match at the World Cup. It's disappointing as a result on both our parts.”
Schmidt had just over two seasons working alongside the Munster legend, but he had previous experience of the lock from his time as head coach with Leinster and as assistant to Vern Cotter with Clermont Auvergne who faced Munster in Europe.
“To be honest, it's a quiet presence, it's a quiet presence that takes up a lot of space,” he said of the player. “He, physically, is a big man, but his influence on others doesn't have to be stated. His influence is very much demonstrated by what he does and because he does it other people follow.
“And what he does is commit himself to absolutely every facet of preparation.
“He's a good lad, he likes a bit of craic in the environment, he tends to pair himself up with the guys who skive off a little bit and that allows him to relax a bit and at the same time it keeps them on track. That's also a bonus.”
The Kiwi also had some words for the other two squad members whose tournaments have been cruelly cut short by injury: Jared Payne, who was ruled out last week with a foot injury, and Peter O’Mahony, who was replaced after half-time against France at the weekend.
“Yeah, there was a lot of feedback around Jared Payne: a few people who hadn't done their analysis, who didn't understand enough about the game to understand what he brought to the game for us.
“The players really spoke about his value, the value of his communication, his decisiveness, his ability to carry the ball forward, the quality of his passing game, his decision making - all of those elements in the middle of your backline.
“He was very much the conduit for the back three. He was very much the conduit for the inside three in the backs. His experience across both southern and northern hemisphere competitions allowed us to pull all that together.”
O’Mahony was in superb form before he succumbed to injury. After a standout effort in the stuttering win over Italy at London’s Olympic Stadium, he was in the process of delivering an astonishing performance against Philippe Saint-Andre’s side until some knee ligaments gave way.
“I don't think we would have won the Six Nations this year without Peter O'Mahony,” said Schmidt. “His ability to take ball in the air, to carry it forward, his lineout intelligence and physical capability were incredibly important to us.
“He's an incredibly hard working player on the pitch as well as bringing those athletic talents.
“So, if you were going to take three people out of the team - you wouldn't want to choose anyone - but I don't think those three would want to be missing. We've been in situations before where we haven't had everyone available, that's always the situation really, so we'll forge ahead from here.”