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Leo & Brian: True Blue Legends

"It's something unpredictable, but in the end is right,

I hope you had the time of your life." - Green Day

Get the hankies ready, because this is definitely it, the last time Leinster fans will get to see Leo Cullen or Brian O'Driscoll take the field in a competitive rugby match.

Brian O'Driscoll, a world-wide icon of the game, finally departs the stage after fifteen seasons in Leinster, Ireland and Lions jerseys. It has of course been one of the longest goodbyes in sport and you get the sense that the man himself will be quietly relieved when all the hoopla is finally done. He leaves the stage along with Leo Cullen, a player he's played with for nearly all his Leinster career.

Leo was always a man who has always been quite happy to fly under the radar in terms of public consciousness, even though he's the most successful captain in Heineken Cup history. Yet, it's somehow apt that they finish up together as there have hardly been two more pivotal players in the success story that Leinster Rugby has become.

It's going to be emotional!

Both products of Blackrock College, Leo and Brian made their Leinster debuts within a year of each other. Cullen was a gangly number eight when he came on as a replacement in an away defeat to Connacht back in October of 1998. O'Driscoll had to wait until the following August to make his Leinster debut in a defeat to Munster, although he did so as a fully capped Ireland international, such was his potential. They both were there for the early painful years as Leinster had to grow up, on and off the field, into the professional rugby team and organisation they are today.

In those days Leinster were capable of some great one-off performances but inevitably found themselves failing when it really mattered. There were huge disappointments like the home defeats in the knock-out stages of Heineken Cup to Perpignan in 2003 and Leicester in 2005 as different coaches came and went.

Both men grew frustrated with the lack of progress and while O'Driscoll came close to leaving to go to France, Cullen actually did leave in 2005 to go to Leicester along with Shane Jennings. It was a blow at the time, but in the end it was massively beneficial for Leinster. Cullen was already an abrasive player when he left but his two years at the Tigers honed his skills and instilled a tough, winning attitude. When Cullen and Jennings both re-joined Leinster two seasons later they brought that hard-nosed mentality back with them and it was music to the ears of coach Michael Cheika. They were all determined that Leinster lose their "soft touch" tag and no one was happier with that prospect than O'Driscoll, who had begun to wonder if he could ever win a Heineken Cup with his home team.

Their first season back was a bit of a struggle but they did win the Magners League. This was a launching pad for Leinster to win their first Heineken Cup in 2009. Cullen had taken over the Leinster captaincy from O'Driscoll at the beginning of that season and the complete lack of rancour over the decision illustrated the respect between the two men.

Of course Cullen went on to lift the Heineken Cup three times in total, but it was typical of him that he never lifted the trophy alone, always insisting on sharing the honour with other senior players in Chris Whitaker, Shane Horgan, Gordon D'Arcy and his old mate Jennings.

As players they were chalk and cheese on a superficial level, O'Driscoll the dazzling backline genius and Cullen, the grunt in the pack happy to do the unseen and (sometimes) dirty work. Yet both shared a warrior's outlook to the game, always putting their bodies on the line for the team with no regard for their personal safety. As he was never the most fashionable lock, Cullen didn't win as many Ireland caps as he should have, but those who really understood the game knew his worth. His expertise at the lineout, his cunning at the breakdown and his relentless work ethic were all vital components of his game. However none were more important than his ability to organise and lead on the pitch.

A perfect example of this was why he arrived on the pitch as Leinster faced a Saracens fight-back in Wembley in 2010. Cullen was only back from injury and entered the fray for a tense final ten minutes. Leinster were seriously under the cosh with Sarries only two points behind and the referee Christophe Berdos was blowing Leinster off the park in the last quarter. Leinster basically couldn't compete for the ball so they had to hang on for an excruciating four minutes of 30 phases, just making their tackles and getting back in the line. Eventually Sarries knocked the ball on and it was game over. Cullen didn't make the most tackles but you'd wonder if they would have held on without his calming influence. Though his playing career will end on Saturday Leinster will hope he can continue to wield that influence as their forwards coach from next season.

O'Driscoll was also a great leader, but more of a "leading by example" type. Players followed him because they knew he wouldn't ask them to do anything that he wouldn't do himself. If he was to be judged on his attacking attributes alone, with all the tries scored and wonderful moments of skill and invention, he would still be one of the great players of his generation. But it's when you add in his remarkable defensive skills, his superb ability at the breakdown and his general willingness to take the fight to the increasingly bigger men who play his position, that you realise what a once-in-lifetime player he really is. The fact that Leinster fans were able to watch his whole club career first in Donnybrook, then the RDS with occasional trips to Lansdowne Road was a great privilege for us.

If we're being brutally honest, both Leo and Brian have shown understandable signs of wear and tear this season and their form hasn't been as good as they would have liked. Brian will likely start on Saturday while Leo probably will come in from the bench for the last twenty minutes looking for a similar impact to the one he made against Ulster. But their class is such that you wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they both pulled out a big moment or two on Saturday evening.

Glasgow of course have too much to play for to pay any heed to sentimental notions of fairy-tale endings. They're the form team in the league and if they win, they will deserve the trophy. Both players would love to add a final medal to their considerable pile, but typically of them they will insist that the only focus should be on the team and the win.

Regardless of the result on Saturday though, Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll will go down in history as two of Leinster's greatest and most important players.

On behalf of all Leinster fans, thanks for everything lads.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2014-05-29