End of an era for a true giant of Irish rugby
Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30
Paul O'Connell's Irish career was not supposed to end this way: helped off a Cardiff field after sustaining a hamstring injury. If the rugby gods had been smiling on Ireland, this warrior of the game would have concluded his international innings by lifting the Webb Ellis trophy. But despite the strong place Irish rugby was perceived to be at the start of the year, Joe Schmidt's men could not get further than the quarter-finals of the World Cup - humbled by a dynamic, thrilling Argentina.
O'Connell could only look on from the stands, his days in a green jersey over. It had all been so different a week before as a rampant Ireland put France to the sword and it appeared as though the team were contenders. Beating Les Bleus meant avoiding New Zealand in the quarters, and the players - including a tearful Ian Madigan - celebrated like they had won the thing. Argentina surely took note.
It wasn't just Irish rugby fans who were in mourning over Paul O'Connell, our third most capped player at 108 appearances. Munster supporters also had to get their heads around the idea that this most iconic of Munster-men, a proud son of Limerick, would be leaving them to join Toulon on a two-year contract. It speaks volumes about his stature in the game that at the age of 36, the Top 14 giants are offering him a salary of a reported €1m a year.
O'Connell will be hoping to have a happier experience in the French league than his erstwhile international colleague Johnny Sexton did. The Dubliner returned to Leinster this season after an unhappy 24-month stint with Racing Metro in Paris and some of his former teammates were only too happy to dismiss his impact on the game there. One of them even likened him to the temperamental Paris Saint Germain footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Sexton returned to a Leinster side in transition - and they proved to be a shadow of the force they were up to comparatively recently by suffering a series of humiliating defeats. It wasn't much better for Munster either. Only Ulster - and Connacht in a lower tier - gave their fans something to cheer.
And yet, it shouldn't be forgotten that Ireland became Six Nations champions in March, retaining the title for the first time since 1949. Paul O'Connell, the Irish Independent's Sport Star of the Year, was named Player of the Tournament.