Proud Schmidt pays tribute to fans as Irish team returns beaten but unbowed
Published 20/10/2015 | 02:30
He's the towering giant of Irish rugby. But as he stooped down to pose for endless photographs with his youngest fans, Paul O'Connell seemed a lot less fearsome than he does on the pitch.
"I'd be honoured to," the leader softly replied to a young fan who had requested an autograph as the team arrived home from their Rugby World Cup defeat in Dublin Airport yesterday afternoon.
The team - who appeared tired, deflated and bruised - happily stopped to talk to the scores of fans who clapped and cheered loudly as they arrived home from Wales.
Head coach Joe Schmidt said he "couldn't have been prouder" of the squad, who crashed out of the tournament after a 43-20 defeat to Argentina in quarter-finals on Sunday.
And this sentiment was echoed by one fan who leaned across the barrier to thank O'Connell for "a great few weeks", as he now bows out of his international career with an injured leg as a memento.
"I think losing Paul, as charismatic as he is, we probably could have coped a little bit. But it was probably losing Pete [O'Mahony], Johnny [Sexton] and Seanie [O'Brien] as well. That didn't help," said Schmidt about the litany of players missing on Sunday.
"But the one thing I would say is that I have the utmost respect and admiration for the guys who stepped into their massive shoes. Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy, young Iain Henderson was one of the stars for us.
"Dev Toner played big when he had to, he's a big man. Ian Madigan, that's a massive mantle to have to lead a team and direct them around the park, and Keith Earls was super for us at centre.
"As disappointed as you are to lose people, I think it is really important to focus on the people you have and vest trust in them."
He said he "couldn't have been prouder" of the team's performance against the Pumas, as they came back from being down 17-0 at one point.
While the New Zealand native said the squad and backroom team are "incredibly disappointed", he paid a special tribute to the fans. "It has been overwhelming," he admitted.
"I think the players were blown away, particularly during the French match, with the volume of support that was there.
"We are incredibly disappointed but at the same time we are really appreciative of that volume of support we have had."
He is now predicting a "massive" Six Nations as he believes the French will be out for revenge.
"I suppose that's all you can do. You can only turn your eye to the future," he added.
Among the fans who greeted them upon their arrival was Jennifer Malone (16) and her mother Donna from Co Kildare.
"The team need you when they lose as much as they need you when they win," Donna said.