The day has finally arrived. At 6:15pm, Brian O’Driscoll will begin his last stint as the chief protagonist in the Leinster love story. As we enter the final scenes of one of the greatest scripts in rugby history, Glasgow Warriors are all that stand between O’Driscoll and the perfect ending. However, there is a subplot at the RDS that will be awash with equal emotion. Leo Cullen, the epitome of Leinster rugby, is also finishing his playing career. We caught up with Leinster and Ireland rugby legend Shane Byrne to say farewell to two Leinster greats.
If one was to create a Mount Rushmore of Leinster rugby legends, there would be no arguments for etching Shane Byrne’s lovable profile into the Dublin Mountains. The former British and Irish Lions tourist would undoubtedly find himself juxtaposed with two other Leinster heroes; Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll.
The aftermath of Saturday’s game, win or lose, will be met with a feeling of emptiness. A Leinster team without BOD, or Leo, is hard to imagine. Both players are the embodiment of all that is good within Irish rugby, and no one understands this more than Shane Byrne.
“Leo was always an absolute dog that would do the work and inspire the whole time,” commented Byrne. “It wasn’t until he went to Leicester that people really recognised him as a talent. Leicester copped on to what they had immediately.
“It was kind of being washed over here in Ireland, but it took that step away for Leo to come back and he’s led by example since doing so.”
The fact that the majority of the media attention has been focused on O’Driscoll is indicative of the nature of Leo Cullen’s play. He was never one to grab the headlines, but was always a leader amongst men.
“Leo doesn’t need to do the flash work, but if you follow him you see the work that he gets through. The words and things that he says to players are invaluable. He has everyone’s attention and you cannot put a value on that.
“All the usual clichés of being a stalwart and a legend are being thrown at him this week, but you know, he bloody deserves it.”
One gets the feeling from the way that Leo carries himself that he is delighted that O’Driscoll’s retirement has deflected the media’s spotlight from the Leinster lock.
“Leo would be hating all of this. This isn’t Leo’s bag at all,” Byrne said jokingly. “Brian is a slicker machine I suppose and he would be well used to the media attention and not fussed about it all.
“Leo just wants to get on with it. It’s great to see the way he has been managed as well. The body is creaking after all the years but they still recognise the plain and simple fact that Leo is invaluable coming off the bench.”
Leinster have flattered to deceive at certain points this season, often falling behind before getting their rhythm together.Byrne believes Cullen is invaluable to the team when they find themselves in these precarious positions.
“Leinster have been a responsive team this season; when they fall behind they respond. Someone like Leo is definitely so important to that.”
O’Driscoll finds himself in a position that rugby players the world over would envy; the ability to write his own script and go out on a high, with a trophy for both province and country.
“It’s very seldom that you get the chance to write your own script. Rugby just doesn’t do that. We’ve seen so many instances where an absolute legend like O’Driscoll ends up either dropped or injured and never gets to finish the script.
“(Ronan O’Gara) is the prime example. What ROG did for the Munster and Ireland jerseys was fantastic and then he was just gone. That was it. His last game wasn’t something he would want to remember.
“This is where Brian O’Driscoll has had the long goodbye. Everything has worked out so far and he’ll be hoping that a bit of silverware will complete the Leinster goodbye.
“Leo Cullen deserves every bit of that as well. When the two guys get on the pitch, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. We all know that Brian cannot tick some of the boxes that he used to, but by God, the ones that he still can tick are as good as anyone.”
While O’Driscoll’s powers have waned as his career winds down, his passion and the reckless abandon with which he throws himself into tackles seem to know no bounds. The fact that he left the semi-final with Ulster two weeks ago due to a suspected concussion, yet is fully fit for Saturday’s final, is representative of O’Driscoll’s career.
Knowledge is knowing that O’Driscoll is hurt, wisdom is knowing that he will pick himself up and drive himself into the next tackle twice as hard.
“Everything in a rugby head should point to Glasgow. Their away form has been immense. However, the key to all this is that Leinster have been doing very little since the Six Nations except doing exactly what they needed to win, the minimum requirements.
“They can’t have much more of an incentive than having their two anchormen retiring and if that doesn’t spur a team on, I don’t know what will. That’s why I’m going for a tight Leinster win.”
The script has been written for O’Driscoll and Cullen, they just need to pen the final chapter. The twelve counties of Leinster are behind the duo, it’s time to make this a fairytale ending.
Richard Barrett, Pundit Arena.