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'The minute I played with him for the first time I realised there was something different about this guy'

A former Ireland team-mate pays tribute to Paul O’Connell.

Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Kevin McLaughlin pictured during McLaughlin's Ireland debut against Italy in 2010.
Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Kevin McLaughlin pictured during McLaughlin's Ireland debut against Italy in 2010.
Image: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

KEVIN McLAUGHLIN IS grateful that he had the opportunity to play alongside Paul O’Connell. His only regret is that he wasn’t able to do so more often.

McLaughlin won eight caps for Ireland, the last of which came in the heartbreaking 22-24 defeat to New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in November 2013.

The 31-year-old was recently forced to retire from professional rugby on medical grounds after sustaining a concussion during Leinster’s Guinness Pro12 defeat to Edinburgh last month.

As a result, McLaughlin can somewhat relate to O’Connell’s current plight. In other words, there’s no guarantee that your career will have a fairytale ending.

O’Connell is still scheduled to line out at club level for Toulon next season, but the Munster legend won’t be seen in an Ireland shirt again after picking up a hamstring injury during Sunday’s win over France, which rules him out of the remainder of the World Cup.

“I’d like to know the percentage because I’d say it’s a very small percentage of rugby players who get to retire on their own terms — Drico [Brian O'Driscoll] maybe being one of them,” said McLaughlin, when asked about the premature end to O’Connell’s international career.

“It’s very unfortunate the way he retired but when the dust settles I think he’ll be able to look back on a really great career. I think he’ll be able to say he has no regrets, he put everything into Irish rugby for 17-odd years and he was a wonderful servant. I think his abiding memories will be really happy ones.”

inpho_00740854 Munster's Paul O'Connell tackles Leinster's Kevin McLaughlin during a Pro12 game in 2013. Source: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

As club rivals with Leinster and Munster, McLaughlin played against O’Connell more often than he was alongside him. Their first occasion as team-mates at international level was McLaughlin’s Ireland debut, which came in the 2010 Six Nations win against Italy.

McLaughlin: “I think someone said it — it might have been [Peter] Stringer — in one of his quotes that the thing about playing with Paulie is that he doesn’t need to be playing a great game, he doesn’t need to be saying anything; all you need is his presence and everyone around him ups their performance. I think that put it really succinctly.

“The minute I played with him for the first time I realised there was something a bit different about this guy. The way he holds himself, the way he goes about his work, how humble he is for a guy who’s as big a star as he is. He treated everyone the same.

“He was the hardest working guy in the squad and he led by example. I only played with him four or five times but I leaned a huge amount from him. He’s going to be a phenomenal loss to Irish rugby.”

A phenomenal loss indeed, but off the pitch more than on it, according to McLaughlin. And that’s not to take away from O’Connell’s contribution between the white lines come kick-off.

Ireland are fortunate to have the likes of Devin Toner, Iain Henderson and Donnacha Ryan available to fill the O’Connell-shaped gap in the second-row, McLaughlin points out. However, when it comes to preparation, analysis and motivating his team-mates, O’Connell is irreplaceable.

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“My view would be that he’s a bigger loss off the field and that was kind of displayed by Iain Henderson’s second-half performance at the weekend. But what Paul brings in the week of preparation for a game, in the words he says and in his analysis of the opposition, is quite hard to replace,” McLaughlin explained.

“I’m not sure if he’s going to hang around the camp while the lads are still in the World Cup but I’d imagine Joe [Schmidt, Ireland head coach] would want him to, because having that kind of voice and that kind of analysis and experience in a week like this would be extremely important.

I suppose at the end of the day, Paul’s got to look after himself and if he needs surgery he’s got to go and get it done. But yeah, my view is that he’s probably a bigger loss off the field.

“If you ask Dev about it, Dev would say he’s learned a huge amount from him from a lineout point of view. He’d be the guy who would spy opportunities in terms of defence and attack in a lineout, and I can guarantee you that he’s the one who came up with the lineout defence plan against France at the weekend, where they stole how ever many balls they did.

“It was Dev and Iain Henderson who executed most of it but it was probably Paulie’s plan. So that’s a loss to Iain and Dev, but the fact is that they would have learned from Paulie over the last few weeks and I’m sure they can bring his knowledge into the next few games if he’s not around.”

Kevin McLaughlin is pictured above with Isa Nacewa, Tania Rosser and Mick Galwey at the ‘Boast’ Rugby World Cup preview event. Boast, the world’s leading audio social media app, hosted the first of its kind rugby preview event where fans tuned in and engaged directly with a panel of rugby experts. The app is available for free download on iOS or Android and allows users to connect with like-minded individuals, as well as radio stations, from around the world on the hottest topics ranging from sport to politics and ‘Boast’ their opinions using their real voice.

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