Monday 19 February 2018

Old hands exit stage but pass on torch of winning mentality

Leinster's 'ruthless' response to O'Driscoll setback highlights legacy of retiring icons

Brian O'Driscoll and fellow retiree Leo Cullen celebrate in the dressing room after Leinster's victory over Glasgow Warriors in the Pro12 final. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Brian O'Driscoll and fellow retiree Leo Cullen celebrate in the dressing room after Leinster's victory over Glasgow Warriors in the Pro12 final. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

Funny how sometimes the hero in the movie dies but the rest of the plot keeps trundling on regardless. When the final curly fingers of the fates summoned Brian O'Driscoll to his final resting place on the bench, it must have seemed as if he were a witness at his own sporting interment.

"You can't plan anything in this game," he would say in a brief interlude of personal mournfulness amidst the collective joy. "What happens, happens. You've got to roll with the punches."

As mercilessly as that delivered by Carl Froch in Wembley, O'Driscoll, who has endured more punishment than a thousand middleweights, was floored by one final haymaker.

A blow too many from which even he couldn't continue. The ruthlessness of his profession had smote him with its vengeful wrath for the last time.

And, while he cursed his luck afterwards, he will be thankful that the Gods were so sparing for so much of this sporting life.

Thing is, everyone around him had to continue.

And so Leinster continued, remorselessly, without him, as they must too in the future.

O'Driscoll had welled up with emotion before the game as Eoin O'Malley, the man once tipped as his successor in midfield, handed out the jerseys to each of the 23 players.

O'Malley should have been playing yesterday; premature injury, though, turfed him into civvy street at just 25, 10 years younger than O'Driscoll.

Leinster moved on without O'Malley. They never forgot him. But they moved on. So too with O'Driscoll.

Everything moves on. And Leinster keep winning. As the crowd acclaimed their wounded hero, the rest of the players and coaches had to plot the rest of the script.


The culture so influenced by O'Driscoll – and Leo Cullen too – demanded that they recoil from revealing even the thinnest veneer of emotion.

"These things are finite at times, you know," Jamie Heaslip told us hours later as he still clutches tightly the Pro12 trophy, as if fearful someone may thieve it from his grasp.

"We cleared out our lockers yesterday and Brian is emptying his for the last time.

"And then tonight. It's one of those milestone moments, you're like 'wow'. I didn't even notice him going off. I saw people clapping and stuff. Wow.

"Unfortunately we have to be ruthless. It's the nature of the beast. We couldn't linger on the moment emotionally, really because of the team we were playing.

"I can't stress enough the role of the bench. And the guys who weren't involved who prepped us so well."

For all the focus on the cult of the individual in recent times – from Nacewa to Sexton, Schmidt to Thorn, O'Driscoll to Cullen – it is the collective that drives this group on.

O'Driscoll and Cullen, both witnesses to a specialised amateur ethos that they reapplied to the professional age, defined this culture in their own special manner.

Others will carry the candle now.

"They don't make them like that any more," marvelled Leinster coach Matt O'Connor. "Guys who are that experienced and that professional but have that genuine amateur ethos of about what's important in relation to a team and in relation to getting the best out of individuals.

"It's second to none and it was a pleasure to have them both in the environment. I feel very privileged that I was able to have them for 12 months.

"The game has moved on. But there's a genuine 'mateship' and a genuine playing for the shirt that happened when guys were doing it for nothing. Thankfully Brian and Leo have got that in spades."

Such humility, a week when narcissism plunged to new depths in European club football's showpiece occasion, framed both Blackrock College old boys in their approach to this grand final.

"Brian was the same all week as he's been for the nine seasons I've played with him," confided Heaslip. "He was the same player, same attitude.

"It was hard to get both him and Leo to lead us out at the start of the game. He was having none of it. He was like 'This is just like every other week'.

"We nearly had to lynch 'em to lift the trophy. That just shows the characters of the two guys."

As impossible as the task is of replacing the irreplaceable, at least the irrepressible spirit of this club renders the task a mite easier.

On Saturday, the greatest tribute to the victors was that they effectively managed the task without the very two people we were told were irreplaceable. Leaders emerged all over the park.

"You look at the blokes that have captained schoolboys and the U-20s, Leinster 'A' – you can't make it in our environment if you're not a leader," said O'Connor.

"That's the reality, so there's a load of them. You have just got to develop them and grow them and give them the opportunity to be that little bit better.

"When I came into the job I was very, very comfortable with where we were, managing the transition of Brian moving on with him in the environment.

"Brian hasn't played that much rugby for us across the course of the season for a number of reasons, and as a result we've had the opportunity to look at guys and develop guys and work out what we're going to do.

"From that end there's a couple of bodies that we're short of but we're pretty comfortable that we've got the quality there at this point and we'll see where we go over the next couple of weeks."

Ironically, the answer may have revealed itself on Saturday, with Ian Madigan dovetailing so effectively with Jimmy Gopperth as twin 'five-eighths', while Gordon D'Arcy reprised his age-old role at No 13.

"I hope we get the opportunity to play a whole lot more together," enthused Gopperth of the midfield combination which, given O'Driscoll's lingering calf issue, had been prepped in training all week.

"We just bump the old fella D'Arcy out to 13 and see how we get on! No, we know each other's play and we thrive playing with each other."

O'Connor chipped in: "Darce is a good 13 for us, he understands it very, very well and when you've got guys like Noel Reid and Ian Madigan who can play there for you, that's a definite reality for us."

The reality for O'Driscoll is, as he joked, "unemployment." He will get on with his new life without Leinster. Leinster will get on with life without him.

Their captain offers a parting valediction.

"Brian has transcended rugby into all things that are Irish. The best way I could sum him up was just '13'. From playing with him, from watching him when I wasn't playing.

"When you think of Brian O'Driscoll, you think of 13, it's almost trademarked. If this was baseball or basketball, it would be retired. Unfortunately we can't."

The greatest players have the shortest memories. Now that he is finished though, O'Driscoll can do all the remembering he wants.

What defined him is now his history. And what defined him will also prepare him for his future.

It appears to be in the safest of hands.

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