A TERMINALLY ill teenager who has been lauded for helping to inspire Paul Oâ€™Connellâ€™s man-of-the-match performance against Harlequins in Munsterâ€™s memorable Heineken Cup victory, says the Limerick rugby giant has been like a â€œbig brotherâ€ to him since his cancer diagnosis.
Donal Walsh from Tralee â€“ whose father Fionnbar hails from Knocklong â€“ captured the hearts and minds of the nation when he spoke candidly to Brendan Oâ€™Connor on the Saturday Night Show about his battle with cancer, his love of life and his bid to help stop suicide among his young peers.
The 16-year-old was diagnosed with the disease for the third time last October. He has been told there is no further treatment available.
â€œWhen I come up against difficult choices I give Paul a buzz and he gives me a help with anything, anything at all. And with the cancer, he is there for me,â€ said Donal this week of his close bond with the Munster talisman.
â€œWe get on great and he has been supporting me the whole way through. He is very nice and he is very big into his family. He has done a lot for me â€“ he is kind of like a big brother.â€
Shortly after his provinceâ€™s 18-12 win over Harlequins at The Stoop on Sunday afternoon, Paul spoke of his admiration for Donal and told of how the young manâ€™s perspective on life has given him â€œa massive liftâ€.
â€œHeâ€™s an inspiration, simple as that,â€ he remarked. â€œHeâ€™s been on a tough journey and I think heâ€™s made a very lasting impression on a lot of people, his schoolmates and everyone. Heâ€™s a special person.â€
The pair first stuck up a friendship back in 2008 when Paul visited Donal in his home in Blennerville after the aspiring sports star was first diagnosed with cancer in his right knee. Extensive surgery meant he no longer could play the sports closest to his heart, GAA and rugby.
â€œPaul was in Tralee at the time, I was just diagnosed and he came to visit me at home. We have been friends since that,â€ recalled Donal of their initial encounter.
â€œWe shoot the breeze a lot, as he would say. We get on very well now. It was as more a support at the start that he was keeping in contact but we have grown a friendship out of it so I am delighted with that.â€
While illness and injury have taught them both much about life and indeed the frailties of the human body, it has been their like-minded response to the knock-backs that has seen them really connect.
â€œI really like talking to him,â€ remarked Paul. â€œItâ€™s hard to relate to some young guys, but whatever journey heâ€™s been on, heâ€™s quite mature and very easy to relate to.
â€œEven when I was injured I used to enjoy shooting the breeze with him because heâ€™d give me a massive lift. He has a great perspective on life and would give me a big lift.â€
For Donal, watching Paul return to Heineken Cup rugby in the glorious fashion he did on Sunday afternoon, having undergone back surgery, has been a source of inspiration for him also.
â€œI was delighted â€“ over the moon,â€ he said of Paulâ€™s performance.
â€œHe is very inspiring - coming back from so much injury, taking it all on his chest and fighting back. I couldnâ€™t believe how well he had come back and brought the team. From what I was hearing, I didnâ€™t expect him to be back that early at all, never mind to be playing that well. I was just so happy for him and the team.â€
A loyal Munster supporter, Donal watched the game in Kielyâ€™s in Donnybrook with his dad Fionnbar, his granduncle Bill Morrisson and his sister Jema.
While there were plenty of Doubting Thomases predicting a Munster annihilation at the hands of Harlequins, Donal certainly wasnâ€™t one of them.
â€œI had a feeling they were going to do it. There is something about them.â€
The proud Kerryman is hopeful that he will be donning the red of his province this Saturday evening before making the trip to Thomond to see Munster go head-to-head with Leinster in the RaboDirect PRO12.
â€œI go up a lot. I havenâ€™t made it up in a while to a few in Thomond but Iâ€™m hoping to get up to the one this weekend if I can, if Iâ€™ve the energy,â€ he explained.
According to his dad Fionnbar â€“ â€œa true Munster man - from Limerick, living in Kerry and working in West Corkâ€ â€“ it would be hard to surpass last weekendâ€™s performance.
â€œIt was an epic game,â€ remarked the Knocklong native. â€œIt was a phenomenal use of power and of tactics.â€
Commenting on another true warrior, his own son Donal, the proud father said: â€œHe has a message to get out there and he is getting it out there.
â€œHe is not going to go away quietly.â€