Trevor Hogan: 'Training against BOD you could never afford a moment's weakness'
Trevor Hogan was in the trenches with both Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen during his time at Leinster. He spoke to some team-mates about their memories of the departing duo
Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen won't want any more focus on their pending retirement ahead of tomorrow's Pro12 final. But the truth is that in 15 years' time, this game against Glasgow will be remembered for something much more than the result and another potential trophy. It will be the last time two players who influenced a generation take to the field.
O'Driscoll has had an incalculable effect on every squad he has been a part of. His very presence has had the power of making players raise their own standards. Because of him I made a conscious effort to try and run certain support lines in training or matches so that I could be on the receiving end of one of his offloads.
Whenever you were on his team in defence, you worked extra hard so you were never the one that drifted off, or left a gap, on his inside. Training against him you could never afford a moment's weakness or you were exposed. He brought the best out of everyone around him.
Leo had a similar influence across the entire squad. Much is rightly made of the difference both he and Shane Jennings made at Leinster when they returned from England in 2007.
Among the first things Leo changed was the line-out calling structure. By replacing the traditional letter and number calling sequence with a more simplified version, a much sharper, faster and threatening set-piece emerged. A culture shift also began immediately. Before Leo and Shane came back, players still had to tog out in the back of their cars for training.
You'd sit on the edge of your boot as you changed into your gear, in the car park of Riverview or Old Belvedere. Leo went directly to Michael Cheika, who can be fairly intimidating, and said: 'Why don't we use your office as a changing room for the lads?'
Instinctively, when players join a club, they avoid confrontation with a new coach, out of their own self-interest, yet here was Leo kicking the coach out of his own workspace so that the players would have a decent spot to get changed. It worked and an important foundation for a unified squad was in place.
There are a few dozen lucky people who can say they have played with Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen. Undoubtedly all will note their well-documented skill level and aggression, but often their influence goes a lot deeper than that. Here are the views of some of those team-mates.
On Brian O'Driscoll...
Eoin O'Malley (Leinster)
"The thing about Brian that people may not realise is how competitive he is, as he can seem so relaxed at times. Everyone knows about his skill level. But he has relentless ambition. He just could never be beaten in anything he did. Sometimes we'd play 5-a-side soccer among the backs before training. Even in those games, he would be flying around the place, sliding tackles, two-footers. He just wanted to win everything. That attitude rubbed off on all of us younger lads, seeing someone like him so hungry."
Fergus McFadden (Leinster & Ireland)
"It is an inspiration to play in a back line and train alongside Brian. His competitiveness is just always there. I remember one incident, when we were playing a game of touch rugby, a couple of seasons back and I made the mistake of half-blocking his run. Next thing there was a bit of a scuffle, and I ended up having to get a couple of stitches! Off the training field, he is a great mentor, especially with the young guys. He spends a lot of time going through videos with me and I know he does that too with Brendan Macken and others."
Jerry Flannery (Munster & Ireland)
"I first spotted Brian at a school trial, when I got him mixed up with another guy called Barry McCracken. He was running riot in the centre and I kept telling everyone to 'pass the ball to Barry.' It was only afterwards when I told 'Barry' that he had a great game that he corrected me. Thankfully, we managed to put that little slip behind us. From then on in our time in Ireland camp, the competitive trait is what I noticed most about him.
"Usually, in the week of international matches, it is normal to have guys who were carrying little knocks to sit out parts of training on the Monday during contact. But with Brian, even though he was the first name down on the team sheet, that never happened. He was always first in, throwing himself into contact. He never took the easy option, and was always the one driving the aggression and the standards. That for me is what makes the player, what they do when no one else is looking, on the Mondays or the Tuesdays."
Malcolm O'Kelly (Leinster & Ireland)
"Drico is the most competitive man in the world, without a doubt, in everything he does. In Ireland camp, we had these table tennis games. There was no kudos to be gained from winning, but it didn't stop Drico wanting to beat Rog (Ronan O'Gara) and just about everyone else. It was just bloody table tennis!
"It was the same in any sport he played, tennis, golf, whatever. I certainly didn't beat him – I actually ended up getting injured in a tennis game trying to match him!
"By being like that he brought the best out in everyone else. I think a lot of that drive comes from his childhood years and his upbringing."
Eoin Reddan (Leinster & Ireland)
"THe striking thing about Brian is his self-belief. He just has this endless optimism, regardless of how tough or poor a performance the week before. He still comes in on the Monday and can't see any reason why it can't be turned around. For a team to be successful, you have to have someone like him, to think anything is possible, and make others believe it too. He epitomised it by scoring three tries in that game in Paris."
Paul O'Donoghue (Connacht & Ireland)
"Brian is iconic, like a Leinster Che Guevara! Seriously, though, he is someone hugely influential to the younger lads. One moment stands out for me in those early years. We were on the plane home after winning the Heineken Cup in 2009, when I did an impersonation of our then coach Michael Cheika. I could tell straight away, that it hadn't gone down too well with Cheiks, especially on a plane full of people that included media and players' families. I spent the next 48 hours really worried and expecting a backlash. I later found out that Brian had a word with Cheika and asked him to go easy on me. That kind of thing was typical of the guy, always looking out for someone's back."
On Leo Cullen...
"A great skill of Leo's is how he gauges the mood of the group. As a leader he knows when enough has been said in team meetings. Sometimes when you're in a huddle, the coach might say, 'Leo do you have anything?'. He'd sense how the squad was feeling, and say 'No, it's done'. Other times he knew when something was needed.
"A couple of seasons back, there had been a few disruptive weeks and the performances weren't great. In the lead-up to the Cardiff game, he told us to text or call the player whose number was below ours on the team sheet. The positive message could be about their personality, their character, or how they play on the field. Afterwards, no one really spoke about what people had said, but you could sense the next day before the game, that the whole team was closer and remained so off the back of it for a long time."
"Leo was the best captain under whom I've played. He had a great empathy for the players and was a brilliant go-between with the management. Personally, I didn't need someone to lead me on the field, what I needed was someone who could provide an organisation and structure. Leo brought that, other captains I came across, Martin Johnson for example, probably didn't have that ability to connect with the players and management. Leo had it.
"He had come into a set-up in Leinster that was practically broken; into a squad that had a lot of individuals and a certain amount of isolation. He transformed that. He revolutionised our line-out systems and created a better environment off the pitch that was essential for success to happen."
"In his team-talks Leo is always controlled and focused on the process needed to win, no s**t talk. Also, he is always good at recognising what's going on in the wider group.
"I remember, in the old changing rooms in Riverview, space was very tight and there wasn't much room for new people. But when Simon Shawe, a prop from Ulster, who was fairly new to professional rugby, joined us late in the season, Leo straight away gave him half of his spot in the changing-room.
"The skipper giving up a bit of his 'throne' as we used to call it!
"It's those little things that make the squad tight, and sum up what he is about."