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'The smallest things made the biggest difference, he was good at that'
Paul O’Connell remains highly respected by all in the current Ireland squad.

UNSURPRISINGLY, THERE WAS a bit of chat about Paul O’Connell out in Ireland’s team hotel yesterday afternoon.

The bad news about the great second row always seems to break in the early part of big weeks for Joe Schmidt’s squad, although last time it was confirmation that his World Cup was over.

Paul O'Connell James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

That shadow lingered on into the build up to the quarter-final defeat to Argentina and judging by the opening 15 minutes of that game, Ireland’s players had their confidence dented by the loss of O’Connell.

This week the focus is on France rather than Argentina, and the Six Nations rather than the World Cup. O’Connell is no longer in their midst and while there were heartfelt tributes paid to a great friend and cherished former teammate upon confirmation of his full retirement from the sport, there is no distraction this time.

There was a light-hearted side to some of the fond memories, particularly from New Ross man Tadhg Furlong, who is always a lively and engaging presence.

We were both in the stand for that game against Argentina,” recalls Furlong. “Naturally enough the camera always kept panning to Paulie. The first time we flashed up on the big screen, he just turned to me… ‘We made it, kid.’

“I’ve no other stories like that really. He was a good fella, always had time for some of the younger lads coming in like myself. I suppose I’m a bit envious that I didn’t get more time with him, more campaigns with him, like some of the other lads had.”

It’s an insight into the humorous side of O’Connell, but the anecdote gives us a glimpse of the subtle ways in which the Limerick man is capable of bringing a squad together.

Furlong says it’s odd that Ireland won’t have O’Connell or Brian O’Driscoll in their ranks ever again – they were “were the constant ‘poster boys’ of Irish rugby for a long time” – but the 23-year-old is glad to have had some face time with the former Munster lock.

IrelandÕs Paul O'Connell watches the match Billy Stickland / INPHO O'Connell got a laugh from Furlong at the World Cup. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“I can only speak from the experience of a younger lad coming into the squad,” says Furlong. “Anything you hear about him, anything you hear players say about him, I can only say for me they are true.

“He just has this presence, a willingness to put a hand around [your shoulder], say a word, or talk you through a lineout that you weren’t quite sure on. The smallest things made the biggest difference, he was incredibly good at that.”

Outside centre Jared Payne, meanwhile, indicated that O’Connell is a highly-respected figure even down in New Zealand, where it is so famously hard to win the approval of the rugby community when you’re not a Kiwi yourself.

Like Furlong, Payne has relatively little experience of playing under O’Connell, having only debuted for Ireland in 2014, but he was struck by the 36-year-old’s ability to stay mentally switched on for the entire duration of games.

Even last weekend, we saw Ireland lose focus after Conor Murray’s try against Wales, producing a costly string of errors that allowed Warren Gatland’s team back into the contest. O’Connell wouldn’t have stood for it.

“It’s hugely important for a team to have a leader who can do that,” says Payne. “It came from his experience of over 100 Tests. 108, was it? Yeah, that’s a decent career!

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“He had that calmness when we needed it and having a level-headed leader is hugely important when things aren’t going quite right. He takes the boys by the scruff of the neck and leads us in the right direction.”

Jared Payne and Paul O'Connell Dan Sheridan / INPHO Payne and O'Connell before the Romania clash at RWC15. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Payne can be a man of few words, clearly preferring to speak with his actions on the pitch. While O’Connell is certainly a more renowned orator than his former teammate, the Ulsterman respected the lack of bullshit from the now retired ex-Ireland captain.

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