Paul O’Connell will go down in history as a “world icon”, according to Lions assistant coach Rob Howley as tributes poured in from around the globe for the Ireland captain.
A hamstring injury suffered against France brought a premature end to O’Connell’s international career but Howley is among many who feel his contribution will live forever.
“Paul’s career has been unbelievable,” said Howley, the current Welsh assistant coach who also filled the same role on the 2009 and 2013 Lions tours.
“I remember he was capped in 2002 and lasted 31 minutes of a game in which Ireland beat us by 54 points.
“That was a watershed moment for Welsh rugby, but in terms of Ireland, they had created a world icon.
“He is a very special person first and foremost, and his lineout expertise is second to none in the world game.
“It was a pleasure to work with him for the Lions in both 2009 and 2013. To see the tweets that other legends such as Brian O’Driscoll have made makes you realise he deserves every accolade. But he is just a top guy and a very special person. Irish rugby will miss him and so will world rugby.”
Gethin Jenkins, the Welsh prop who played with O’Connell on three Lions tours, added to the praise. “He is a great leader and a great player,” said Jenkins. “It is a shame to see him go out the way he has.
“He has a great record in the game and is one of the best northern hemisphere players we have had. I have played with and against him and he is a great competitor and a tough guy to come up against.”
Eddie O’Sullivan, who gave the 35-year-old his debut in that game against Wales in 2002, also lauded O’Connell. “He’s right up there with Brian O’Driscoll,” said O’Sullivan.
“Brian has stepped off the stage now and is gone, Paul was there and took on the mantle and I think he’s delivered everything Brian O’Driscoll delivered in the leadership stakes. It’s terrible to see him leave like this.
“He’ll be sorely missed. It’s hard to put a measure on his contribution, it’s just extraordinary what he’s contributed to the team.
“He made a massive contribution in the team when he wasn’t captain, when Brian O’Driscoll was captain. The support for Brian he gave was extraordinary. We’re going to run out of superlatives to describe O’Connell as time goes on.
“He’s made a major impact in a green shirt from his first cap, which was my first game in charge against Wales back in 2002 in the Six Nations.
“Over 13-and-a-half years and what he’s packed into that and he’s achieved. I wish him well in his recovery but I hope he’s back on the rugby field again, even if it’s not in an Ireland shirt.”
And others added their tributes on social media. Italian hero Sergio Parisse tweeted: “@Paul_OConnell was a privilege to play against you!! Really sad to hear of your retirement...best second row ever! #legend”
Former Scotland wing Kenny Logan added on Kicca: “As an ex-player and as a fan what a great ambassador for the sport, a true legend of the sport.
“A Lion, Munster and Irish and World Cup hero. If anyone wants to watch how you should be a second row or an ambassador for the sport he is the one to watch.
“You are a true legend mate and I hope you get back playing with Toulon and have a speedy recovery.”
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