Parental guidance leads to final embrace for O’Driscoll, Cullen
As Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen come to the end of their playing days with Leinster their families reminisce
(From left): Frank and Paula Cullen, the parents of Leo with Brian O’Driscoll’s mother and father Geraldine and Frank at the Westin Hotel, Dublin .Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times.
Tonight at the RDS Leinster will hope to celebrate victory in the RaboDirect Pro12 against the Glasgow Warriors and in doing so provide the appropriate backdrop to the final curtain call for two of the province’s outstanding players, Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll, both of whom retire after the match.
Whatever the outcome the Leinster supporters will rise to acclaim, in Cullen, the player who led his team-mates to an unprecedented haul of silverware, the only man to captain three Heineken Cup winning teams, and in O’Driscoll, an exceptional talent, one of world rugby’s greatest players, who frequently demonstrated that ability when club or country needed it most.
Watching on will be Frank and Paula Cullen, Leo’s parents, and close-by, Frank and Geraldine O’Driscoll, Brian’s father and mother. What started in childhood as a journey of a few miles down the road to facilitate their sons in playing a sport, transformed into a pilgrimage that took them to the four corners of the rugby globe.
They offered their sons unconditional support, present to assist in celebrating success or conversely offering a shoulder or a word, when injury or disappointment interrupted the good times. Their influence transcended that of any rugby coach.
They graciously accepted an invitation to lunch at the Westin Hotel during the week, to offer a little insight into what it has been like for them to walk in the footprints of their sons’ careers and to reveal the odd secret or two.
In recalling shared experiences of people, times and places the conversation was peppered with a great deal of laughter. They all agree that they will be no regrets this evening in the RDS. The boys are ready to begin another chapter in their lives and so too are their parents, who can now start to reclaim a little bit more of their lives.
Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll went on to achieve many honours during their rugby careers but in keeping with many Irish boys, their respective childhoods were spent pursuing a variety of sports and it was more circumstance than design that nudged them in one particular direction. There was a chorus of absolutely not when the parents were asked if they had any sporting preference for their sons.
Paula Cullen: Leo played rugby because he went to Willow Park. Before that he was in the Wicklow Montessori School, one of seven pupils in a class. There was no team sport. He made his Holy Communion there aged six and half and then moved to Willow Park that September.
We farmed in Newtownmountkennedy and I remember everything having to be put on hold to go up and down to Willow every Saturday (for rugby).
Out on the farm I’d be moving ponies or sheep and I’d ask Leo, from a young age, to give me a hand. He always said yes but he wasn’t much assistance most of the time. He’d disappear and then reappear with a rugby ball in his hand.
He’d ignore me in favour of the ball; chasing it, bouncing it, kicking it. That would be the start of my memory of the rugby, rugby, rugby. No matter what he did he had a ball in his hand or on the end of his foot.
Frank Cullen: He was born connected to a ball, is the expression I would use. Even at home if you were watching television, there would be a ball bouncing. You couldn’t watch the news in peace because there’d be some ball bouncing somewhere.
I have this vivid memory of one day asking Leo to go and get my jacket, which I had left in the yard. Out he went but collected half a dozen balls of all shapes and sizes, rugby, tennis, soccer and golf before heading off. Half an hour later I said to Paula: ‘Have a look at him, he’s no notion of why he’s out there other than kicking a ball.’ My jacket may as well have been on the moon.
If there was any sort of a tiff with his siblings (Owen and Sarah), no matter what time of the day, out the door he’d go but he would always carry a ball. You’d hear the thwack of ball on roof or window. He’d kick conversions over the field gate, playing for Ireland at the time of course.
Geraldine O’Driscoll: I think that must be the thing about boys who make it to a high level in sport that they don’t differentiate initially, embracing all ball games. I have pictures of him (Brian) at home playing tennis, soccer and Gaelic football.
He was slightly different to Leo in that he didn’t play rugby until he was 11. He went to Belgrove National School where he played Gaelic Football. He didn’t play hurling because he wore specs and he needed them because he was short sighted.
He played soccer with the local team, two years younger than his team-mates. He also played on a Community Games team. He was very good at soccer and people suggested we should send him here, there and everywhere. When he played tennis at the local tennis club, it was the same. The advice we got was that he showed promise and that we should send him for extra lessons. He was a ball player.
The other thing we noticed about Brian is that he had amazing balance.
He rode a two-wheeler bike when he was three years of age. His sisters hadn’t done it until they were four and a half. His balance was always very good.
Frank O’Driscoll: Ball games, ball games, ball games. He had a ball at the dinner table. He’d be eating with one hand and he’d be firing a ball in the air with the other. If Wimbledon was on, he’d be out with a tennis racket, if the World Cup was on he’d be out with a soccer ball. If rugby was on, it was the rugby ball. He never showed a predilection for any game at all until he went to play rugby.
GO’D: We were also very lucky that we had St Anne’s across the road with so many pitches. That’s where he expended his energy. FO’D: We would have spent hours, himself and myself, in the back garden kicking the ball up in the air, passing . . . he never, ever tired of any ball game.
GO’D: There was one time when you hung a golf ball from a tree and he’d practice with a club trying to hit it, like Swing Ball.
The only thing that we could find that resembled a rugby ball was an American football. I’d say for 24 or 25 days on the sands of the Adriatic, I was throwing ball to Leo, morning, noon and night. That would have been at his request.
FO’D: I’m sure you never felt it was a chore.
FC: No. I always thought it was our job (as parents) to be there. As Paula said, we would regularly leave Wicklow three times a day to drive into Dublin to collect and drop because the schedules were different for each of the children. I always wanted to be there.
FO’D: Always, couldn’t agree more.
FC: Whether it was training or playing, you wanted to be there to share the moment but to support. It was never a chore, it was a pleasure.
GO’D: You can never have regrets, say, I wish I was there. We adopted that attitude very early on. We’d go because we wanted to, not out of a sense of duty.
FO’D: I had an experience and to this day I regret I didn’t turn to the father and say ‘what are you doing here’. I was playing golf with this guy and as we walked down a fairway he turned to me and said: ‘It’s fantastic, my son is on the seconds’ team and they are playing in the final this afternoon against such and such.’
I looked at him and wanted to say: ‘What the hell are you doing playing golf here when your son is playing in a final.’ I regret and I didn’t turn to him and say: ‘If that was me, I would be there.’ I went to the girls’ (Julie and Susan) hockey matches much to their embarrassment.
PC: All the children received support. I traipsed around to Pony shows three times a week with Sarah from the time she was eight. Of course Leo had to come and be the pony holder. He had to stand around patiently and do that because you could leave them behind.
FO’D: Imagine how small those ponies felt (laughter). Same with our girls, they played their hockey, they played their tennis, not representative stuff, but when they were playing for the school we went to see them.
The artists as young men
Leo Cullen should have ended up at Cistercian College, Roscrea, the school for which his name went down on the day he was born, the one which his father Frank had attended. Brian O’Driscoll was earmarked to go to Belvedere College. They went first to Willow Park and then Blackrock College, one year apart. Here’s how . . .
FC: Our kids were going to Wicklow Montessori and I was chairman of the school at the time. Sarah was in an older group. There was a class above and below and she was the only girl. For fear that she’d end up a tomboy we had to get her to a girls’ school, which we did: Holy Child, Killiney.
I had Leo down for Roscrea, where I had gone to school. Paula’s two brothers had been to Willow and she knew Father Stanley, so he went to Willow. But I still intended him to go to Roscrea. There was a very highly regarded teacher in Willow, a Mrs Maher, and at a parent-teacher meeting when Leo was in sixth class she said to me, “Now Mr Cullen tell me what are your plans for Leo? He’s graduating soon, where is he going next?”
I replied that I had gone to Roscrea and that the day Leo was born I put his name down for the school. She said, pointing a finger: ‘Mr Cullen I’ll give you a piece of advice and you’d do well to heed it. If a boy is happy in school you leave him, if a boy is unhappy you take him out even if it is in the middle of term.’
I walked out of the room that evening and saw Leo running around on a pitch, playing a match, happy as Larry. I thought to myself, why would I change that picture?