Drico: 'Leo's been our voice. People shut up and listen. He gave out today and I was scared'
"Brian O'Driscoll is a wonder to me. I've often wanted to ask him how it happens for him. Or how he makes it happen all the time." - Leo Cullen – 'A Captain's Story'
FOR one moment, Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen, two grown men now pondering professional retirement, return to their days as giggling Blackrock schoolkids on the rugby swards where they took their first steps towards sporting legend.
For the next line in Cullen's autobiography reads thus: "But how do you bring that up in conversation with a team-mate without looking like a total pothole?"
Cue fits of laughter. "What about it, potsy?" exclaims O'Driscoll to his stupefied captain.
"It's weird," says O'Driscoll, still spluttering slightly. "He actually asked me again this morning."
"Yeah, I asked him today," confirms Cullen. Well, go on then. Don't be shy.
"It's a genuine worry that people can over-coach," he wants to explain first, appropriately since he will soon begin coaching the team he led in three winning Heineken Cup finals, a record for a European club captain.
"Nowadays coaches have to feel they have a role to drive guys from such a young age. It's harnessing that creative genius. How do you do it?"
The question is now a hypothetical one. O'Driscoll's genius has always, it seems, been innate. Marrying it to hard work, though, was the key to longevity and success.
"The best teams are player driven," admits O'Driscoll, keen to maintain the theme of the day during which they seek to define themselves as mere cogs in an unbelievably well-oiled machine.
"You're in the best place when the coach has to say the least the longer the season goes on, where the team runs itself and key players, whether they be pack leaders, half-backs, the back three, they're the nucleus and they're able to control the team. So it's about the team singing to their tune."
At Wednesday's IRUPA awards, when they unveiled another O'Driscoll video homage, one was moved by the one-word tributes from the professional and personal – "leader," "warrior," "husband," "son" and, most movingly, forcing him to catch his breath, "dada."
O'Driscoll, like Cullen, is and was an extraordinary player and competitor, but again, without the personality, the strength of character to forge that talent into something still greater – Cullen reckons there were many better players than the pair in school – they would be nothing. "That was an addition to the talent that was there," says O'Driscoll, attempting to chart the graph from individual brilliance to sustained success. He proved that talent is not merely bequeathed. It requires zeal.
"I don't want to disrespect the teams we had at the turn of the century, we'd a very talented team. Some people had a great work ethic, but it wasn't right across the board the way it is now. You realise what the standard is now, it's improved and more is expected of you now.
"There wasn't a eureka moment when you thought you had it cracked. It accelerated when Leo came back from Leicester in 2008 having learned so much over there, they were probably ahead of us from a professional point of view.
"We got a lot of knowledge and information and that coincided with Michael Cheika bringing in his own philosophies. He worked us hard and gave us that appetite to know we could dig in deeper than we ever had. We weren't broken to be built back up. But we could get to places in games where the opposition couldn't get us."
Where he and Cullen led, others followed and these are the standards which now prevail and will continue to do so in the years ahead with Cullen as coach and O'Driscoll, perhaps, as an occasional sounding board.
Cullen may have struggled to understand O'Driscoll's "freakish talent," however, O'Driscoll was always certain of his captain's leadership qualities.
"There was always the cool head in any situation, that's the real strength of a good leader, not getting caught up in scenarios," he explains. "If you're able to keep your head when everyone is losing theirs, as Kipling said, and it's so true.
"That makes you stand out. And that's what you have in 'Skips' here. Over the last five or six years, he's been our voice. People shut up and listen. He doesn't give out a lot. But you listen.
"He gave out today and I was scared. I wasn't one of those guys you were talking about, no?"
Cullen smiles wanly. "I had too late a night," he says sheepishly of his – teetotal! – presence at the IRUPA awards. "I was up until 12.0. I'm usually in bed at 9.0!"
It will be unusual for him not to have his 'mucker' around the place next year, as much as he intends to maintain a "channel of communication" with someone who clearly has much to offer the game even in retirement.
"It's going to be strange. It's freakish the stuff that he's done. I don't know how you teach that, to tell you the truth. That's the great mystery for me. How do you teach players to grow that confidence?
"I've always believed that guys give all their personality to the place, whatever that might be. It's important people are comfortable in the environment so they can demonstrate even a crazy idea, having the balls to do it on a big day.
"That's extra special. We're poles apart in terms of what we're like as players, but you need a bit of everything. What he has is so unique. In my head, I know I want to meet him before the season is over and certainly before the start of next season.
"I would hope that channel of information is always there. And if that was to grow into something more substantial, then that would be fantastic."
O'Driscoll has expressed "trepidation" about journeying into the great beyond, but he can't wait to spend the summer with his family. It's what happens next that intrigues him so.
"Trust me, I'm not worried about the next three months, they're going to be a laugh. It's what happens after that. Trepidation is probably too strong a word, but I did use that, you're not putting words in my mouth.
"It's coming from something that you're so comfortable with, feel totally at home with, in which you offer so much. Then going into something else where others feel you still have as much to give, but in your own head you have to adapt.
"You have to understand that new role. It's about getting that right and I will have to get myself out of the comfort zone a little. I've done that a little recently, I've pushed myself in a few different ways.
"That's exciting for me. You do grow as a person too by doing that, not just staying typecast for your whole adult life. Now I have to push the boundaries a little more and see how far I can push myself."
As players, they each pushed the envelope in terms of what Leinster and Irish rugby could achieve. But none of it could have been done without their strength of character.
What their personalities provide in the future will be fascinating to behold. Who knows? There could be another book in it.
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