A hamstring injury has ruled Paul O’Connell out of the remainder of the Rugby World Cup, ending the international career of one of Ireland’s greatest players and delivering another major setback to the squad ahead of the quarterfinal against Argentina.
The 35-year-old O’Connell will undergo surgery on what Ireland team management described Tuesday as a “significant” hamstring injury he sustained in the 24-9 win over France on the weekend. He was replaced in the squad by Mike McCarthy.
“This is so wrong on many levels,” another Ireland great, Brian O’Driscoll, posted on Twitter. “One of the greatest leaders & players of them all. Inspirational.”
With flanker Peter O’Mahony ruled out of the tournament on Monday with a knee injury and star flyhalf Jonny Sexton struggling with an adductor problem, Ireland has a big leadership vacuum to fill. Openside flanker Sean O’Brien could also be missing after being cited for swinging his forearm into France lock Pascal Pape’s stomach during Sunday’s game.
O’Connell had previously said he’d be retiring from international rugby after the World Cup, and finishes his international career with 115 test caps, including 108 for Ireland – third on the country’s all-time list – and seven for the British and Irish Lions. He won three Six Nations titles and a series win with the British and Irish Lions in 2013. He was in the starting XV 99 games for Ireland and captained the team 28 times.
After spending all his club career with Munster, he signed a two-year deal with French giant Toulon for what could be his final seasons in rugby. That spell may be truncated because of surgery.
The injuries to O’Mahony and Sexton also came in the brutal match against the French, which Ireland won to top Pool D and avoid a quarterfinal against defending champion New Zealand. Outside center Jared Payne was ruled out of the tournament on Saturday because of a foot injury.
The squad enjoyed some light-hearted relief on Monday when players took to the golf practice range with Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner who was visiting the team base. There was plenty of laughter when Luke Fitzgerald – urged to “grip it and rip it” by his teammate – let his club slip mid-shot and it went flying 30 meters forward. The golf ball, meanwhile, toppled off the tee and came to rest a couple of inches in front.
Captured on camera, the video has become a YouTube hit, with nearly 150,000 views.
It was back to the serious stuff on Tuesday as the squad returned to training and coach Joe Schmidt tried to figure out how to replace potentially five of his first-choice players against Argentina.
Jamie Heaslip will take over the captaincy, Iain Henderson is set to replace O’Connell in the second row, and Chris Henry likely will come in for O’Mahony on the blindside flank. Henry only returned to the Ireland team in May after having a mini-stroke ahead of Ireland’s November test with South Africa last year.
The 30-year old Henry underwent surgery to fix a small hole that was discovered in his heart.
Sexton’s absence would be a major setback – he is arguably the best No. 10 in Europe – but Ian Madigan showed in his superb display against France that Ireland has a strong alternative at flyhalf.