Joe Schmidt last night promised Ireland would forge ahead without Paul O’Connell, but not before admitting his captain’s leadership would leave a massive hole as they prepare for Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final with Argentina.
They had known it was coming but when the moment arrived to unequivocally declare O’Connell’s World Cup and Ireland career over, it did not lessen the blow for the squad and head coach he will leave behind.
Finally declared out at 108 caps, the former Munster, Ireland and Lions captain will undergo surgery at the end of this week to repair the severe hamstring tear he suffered during his country’s 24-9 victory over France last Sunday at the Millennium Stadium.
Leinster’s Mike McCarthy will replace him in the squad but Ireland and Schmidt must prepare for this Sunday’s clash with Argentina having lost an irreplaceable leader.
“He’s obviously a leader by nature, but he’s also a leader by label,” Schmidt said last night on Irish Rugby TV. “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.”
Devin Toner knows that more than most. He has long credited O’Connell alongside his provincial mentor Leo Cullen as being his biggest influence and this weekend he will have to step up and lead the lineout in the great man’s absence.
The refreshing thing for Toner and Ireland is that they have already proven they can survive without O’Connell, not least last weekend when having seen their captain leave on a stretcher at half-time, less than 20 minutes after losing fly-half Sexton, the men in green converted a 9-6 interval lead into a 24-9 shutdown of the French.
Yet still there will be a vacuum Ireland have no choice but to try and fill.
“It’s hugely positive we were able to do that,” Toner said. “I keep on saying it, but we do have strength in depth these days, we’ve worked really hard over the past two years to forge that strength in depth and to forge that strength in the squad and I think being able to do that in the way that we did was hugely positive and we can take that going into the next game.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he said of O’Connell’s tournament-ending injury.
“He will be a massive loss. Everyone knows that. He was the leader of the team, he was the captain, he was the pack leader, he was the brains behind a lot of the forward play. As a team he is a massive loss but it has happened before that we have lost players going into games, it has happened that we have had to dig deep in our squad and we have a lot of confidence in our squad these days to pull through.
“We back ourselves, we’re going to back our squad. Everyone is going to dig deep and do a bit more work because of the injuries. Everyone knows what a fantastic player Paul is and what he brings to the team and he is going to be a massive loss but that is one of the things we have to deal with.
“Everyone knew these were his last couple of games anyway. Because he is not there now lads will want to perform for him and make him go out on a high.” Schmidt must also counter the losses of Peter O’Mahony and Jared Payne, both of whom departed the squad ahead of O’Connell due to injury. The head coach hit out at those who rounded on outside centre Payne as a weak link in the Irish backline while praising flanker O’Mahony as a player Ireland would not have won the Six Nations without.
“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 and I think for the back three 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 for us.
“I don’t think we would have won the Six Nations this year without Peter O’Mahony, 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 you know 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.”
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