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.

(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.

FC: We used to go to Italy on holidays. This particular year was the summer prior to the start of Leo’s Junior Cup year. He grew enormously, about six inches in height, over that spring and summer.

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?

GO’D: Brian was academically quite average. He was very talented at sport, so we decided that if we sent him to a school that had quite a sporting ethos he would blossom. We had a bit of pull too. My father’s cousin was a Holy Ghost priest. He went in sixth class and spent two years in Willow. He didn’t have any other (friends) going which was a bit tough initially. I used to drop him to the DART: 17 minutes door to door.

FO’D: We haven’t let Fr Leonard Moloney away with the fact that twice Brian failed to get into Belvedere. He did the entrance for Belvedere and his Maths wasn’t very good, so he didn’t get in. We got him a grind and he did another exam, the upshot of which was a call to come in for an interview.

They offered him a place as another guy who was going to take the last available place had decided not to. Brian was in. That was on the Friday and the following Monday or Tuesday, we got a letter telling us the other boy had changed his mind and was accepting the offer and that there would be no place for Brian.

So I said to Ger: ‘That’s the end of it. We’ll beg, borrow or steal but he’s not going to Belvo, he’s going to ’Rock.’ He went into Willow and the rest is history.

Camaraderie and an entente cordiale

Leinster’s travelling support back in those days generally comprised of the players’ parents.

They laughed and cried through good times and bad, offering friendship and support to one another and demanding nothing but a sense of humour in return. GO’D: It would have been in early days with Leinster that we got to know each other. I remember Paula (Cullen) and Frank (O’Driscoll) going off to a corner of the ground in Franklin’s Gardens when Leinster were playing Northampton (2000). The rest of us were in the ordinary seats.

FO’D: We, Paula and I, went down to pitch-side. We were screaming. We were a couple of points up in the game and Leinster’s outhalf at the time Eddie Hekenui was passing the ball inside his own 22. Paula and I were screaming at him to hoof it down the pitch. You see we were down to 13 men – Gary Halpin and Shane Horgan were in the sin bin – and our friend was flashing the ball with just 13 men.

I remember Brian saying afterwards, ‘Dad you can’t roar like that,’ to which I replied, ‘son there are times when you have to.’

FC: The friendships we made on those trips are treasured. Some of the happiest moments in my life have occurred in rugby grounds and around rugby games; most especially away matches where you’re in a close community of parents and supporters, particularly so in the early days. We have been fortunate to have more highs than lows but you share those moments with the other parents in the full knowledge of that common emotional bond.

GO’D: We had a memorable train journey, after playing from ASM Montferrand, as they were known at the time (2007), to Paris.

PC: Carol Henderson and I whizzed around to the local supermarket and bought some champagne and plastic glasses that you had to assemble by screwing in the stalk. About 12 of us, the Corrigans, Dempseys, Hickies, Cullens, O’Driscolls, Marie Costello and Carol boarded a train.

The next thing these guys get on carrying large boxes. It transpires that they were musicians and returning to Paris having been at a Jazz festival. We decided to have a little celebration, so we popped a few corks, out came the musical instruments and we were serenaded all the way to Paris. There was dancing in the aisles. The three and a half hours seemed like 10 minutes.

GO’D: We never booked as a group. When staying in rural France there might only be a couple of hotels in the town so you’d end up staying either together or within walking distance. We all met for meals, some good, some bad but it generally didn’t matter because we have great fun in each other’s company.

FO’D: It wasn’t unusual for us to have 20 people sit down for a meal.

FC: I think Irish people are able to put the vagaries of sport into context pretty quickly when a match finishes.

FO’D: If we lost we’d say, that was a pity or we weren’t good enough on the day but then you’d try and put things in context and we’d pick each other up. Those friendships and the camaraderie meant that we were able to kick on and enjoy the nights.

FC: We were lifelong rugby fans before our sons came along. The European Cup brought us to places around France which were small enough where you made an impression socially. We were warmly welcomed. That to me has been one of the great pleasures.

FO’D: We went away somewhere in France and I decided there was no time like the present to practice my French. I got chatting to these guys. The upshot was that four of them came over to our house in Dublin to stay when France next played Ireland.

I have never seen anything like the stuff they brought (as gifts): wine, cheese, pate, a suitcase full. They stayed with us for the weekend.

We went to the rugby club in Clontarf on the Friday night before the game and they had the time of their lives.

The following year Ger and I stayed with them in Agen. PC: It wouldn’t be fair to say the result was irrelevant but we were able to move on emotionally once you left the stadium. People used to laugh at us in a restaurant saying ‘and their team lost today’. But that was a safety valve in some respects for your sanity, that ability to look forward rather than back.

Watching your son getting hurt

It’s tough to watch your son pick up an injury, whether a broken limb, shattered ligaments or, the current scourge of professional rugby, head injuries. All four feel very strongly about the concussion issue.

FC: Rugby is a contact sport. I accept that and therefore don’t have the concern some people might. I do encourage safety and like to see it promoted. We have had a number of instances where Leo was injured and there is a natural concern. Touch wood, I have only seen Leo concussed badly once to the point that I was concerned and that was at a young age.

He’s doing something he loves. I have always seen my role as just being there, as a support, for encouragement, to be as philosophical as you can and to help them cope. A few times Leo’s suffered shoulder injuries, which can seem to them devastating at the time, and they are, but you just have to be there and share in that. It comes with the territory a little bit.

PC: A lot of my friends would say how can you sit and watch that game for 80 minutes? Are you not worried? I am not one that jumps out of the seat, every time he is on the ground. I couldn’t have that attitude or I’d be a wreck.

FO’D: During the 80 minutes I never ever, ever think of an injury. If Brian goes down, you have a quick look and try and ascertain whether it looks serious or not and the only time you are really worried when you think it looks serious. Then you just have to wait and that can be difficult. You can’t jump up and run down. You have control your emotions, wait and see what happens and generally you’ll get a bit of feedback on his condition quite quickly, particularly if he goes off.

The only time I went looking for him was after the New Zealand spearing. It took me 25 minutes to get him to find out where he was and what condition he was in.

GO’D: You watch for small signs, movement of legs and arms, sitting up that kind of thing. Then you think okay.

FO’D: But when you see him being taken off and he’s a bit dazed you say: ‘Thanks be to God they’re taking him off: common sense.’ You have no ambition whatsoever for him to go back on again: none.

GO’D: (On the concussion issue) at last they’re starting to take it seriously.

FC: Safety has to be paramount.

GO’D: No player should have a say in the decision to be removed from a pitch. The adrenaline is pumping and they just don’t want to leave. It is only when the look at it retrospectively that they appreciate the bigger picture.

FC: There hasn’t be a case for us in terms of Leo but I have seen examples of concussion and it’s worried me where I know a player has come off concussed and he’s playing a week or two weeks later. That shouldn’t happen. The culture has to be that it’s not tolerated.

Being part of your son’s entourage

It’s beautifully encapsulated in a story concerning Geraldine O’Driscoll. She once observed that she had gone from being Frank O’Driscoll’s wife to Brian O’Driscoll’s mother. Tomorrow morning she’s can’t wait to reclaim her identity.

FC: I was interviewed by The Irish Times before an SCT final and asked what it was like being a parent of a player. I replied, ‘that was an awful lot of people are saying hello to me and I had no idea who they are’. The common form of greeting was ‘you’re Leo’s dad’.

FO’D: I had an experience in the surgery recently with a new patient. He remarked about a picture of Brian O’Driscoll that I had in the waiting room. I nodded. We chatted away. Then suddenly he looked up horrified and said: ‘Am I the only person who’s come in here and not realised you’re his dad.’

GO’D: I had one when someone came in and said: ‘You seem to be awful keen on Brian O’Driscoll,’ to which I responded: ‘I should be, I’m his mother.’

Listening to your son being criticised

It can’t be easy to sit in a crowd.

GO’D: You get very thick skinned.

FC: Let’s neutralise it, using a club game as an example. Some of the things that the respective supporters shout at the players on both sides are outrageous, way over the top. But that’s part of the occasion, part of the tribalism in all sports. It comes with the territory.

As Geraldine says you have to become thick skinned.

GO’D: One of my daughters is very sensitive about this. She finds it really difficult when someone starts giving out about Brian. She’s older than Brian, but it really bothers her.

FC: Criticism you don’t mind to a point, so long as it’s measured or fair.

It’s just these outrageous statements that rankle.

GO’D: What drives Frank mad is when someone shouts ‘wake up’. No one sets out to lose, no one sets out to make mistakes.

FO’D: On one particular occasion an old man sitting behind me, and it was nothing to do with Brian, roared out: ‘You stupid fool.’ I just turned around and stared at him, said nothing.

PC: I had an incident that centred on a player who wasn’t having a great day on the pitch. His parents were sitting beside me. We had three Leinster blazers behind us, full of negativity about the individual. I did exactly what Frank (O’Driscoll) did, I turned around – I didn’t know who they were at the time – and said: ‘Have you any idea of what you are saying. That guy’s parents are sitting here. You wouldn’t do me a favour and keep quiet.’

GO’D: I did something similar at Thomond Park in a Leinster-Munster game. I won’t use names. The mother of a player was sitting beside us. Two men stationed directly behind us started giving out about her son, upon his introduction. I stood up turned around and gestured to the woman beside me, quietly saying that the person they were bad mouthing, who hadn’t even touched a ball, was her son. They stopped immediately.

FC: In my early days I used to walk the pitches, walk away from that.

FO’D: He can’t do that anymore because of arthritis (laughter).

FC: I have to add that berating the ref never achieves anything. FO’D: No, but you feel great (laughter).

GO’D: In the early days when Frank would be berating refs I would remind him that refs were people too. They have families too.

Agents, 20 per cent, and a winter tan

For many young players the choice of agents can be a big decision. Frank Cullen and Frank O’Driscoll act on their respective sons’ behalf.

FC: The motivating factor isn’t primarily about money. It’s about making the right choice at that particular moment in time, not selling your soul or becoming exploited. Ultimately he’s (Leo) made his own decision. I have facilitated him in that respect when it comes to thrashing out the details of a contract.

FO’D: Our experience is slightly different. I felt very early on in Brian’s career that I wouldn’t be up to that. I got phone calls from all over the world saying ‘I can manage your son. I’m the greatest thing since the sliced pan. I can make your son millions.’ Anyway I spoke to dozens of guys. Eventually a particular guy came over from England; he was ex-Manchester United.

We discussed it with him. He was a bit flash: the tan in the winter, the jewellery, the class suit. One thing that put me off was when he said to Brian: ‘What kind of car would you like to drive?’ That was a case of alarm bells for me. That was the least important consideration.

I spoke to Brian at that point and said, ‘I think I’ll have a go at this. I’ll look after your interests and we’ll see how it goes. I have done it ever since. It has worked out brilliantly. The other thing I said to Brian was look you’re an established player, a couple of people will come to us looking for you to do X, Y and Z. Why give somebody 20 per cent for a phone call. If they are looking for you they want you. Even I, although not very experienced, will hopefully be able to get you what you’re worth and you’re getting it all.

When I went in to do his contracts and the sponsorship deals, I got an incredible buzz. The very first deal I came home to Brian, told him what we had been agreed and he said that it sounded pretty good. I never went into any contract negotiations afraid of anyone.

Strange requests and autographs

From the bizarre to the poignant the players gets some unusual requests. There’s also a way to spot a forged Brian O’Driscoll signature!

FC: No matter where they go, they have fans. I often see, Leo and I’m sure Brian to a much greater extent, being asked for playing kit, autographs and pictures and I like the way Leo makes time to do those things. That’s something I admire.

FO’D: The esteem in which they are held doesn’t seem to have changed them. They have been gracious throughout their careers. No one can say they are stuck up. They are two very normal, down-to-earth blokes who realise they have been, very lucky, have had great careers and now can move on to the next stage. I’m a stickler for manners and I think Brian inherited that. He’ll wait until someone says please with any request. Once they do there’s no problem. FO’D: You would not believe some of the requests. There was one from Limerick where the person’s son was making their confirmation and suggested it would be lovely if Brian could go down and spend four hours with the boy on his confirmation day. The latest thing is requests to do a recording for weddings. I’m the best man and I was wondering if you would wish John and Mary . . .

FO’D: There are some heart-breaking cases in terms of cancer etc and you try and do something where possible.

GO’D: I get photos done and Brian signs them. He’ll put his signature across the person’s name to whom it’s being made out so that the recipient’s name can’t be rubbed out; so if the Jack goes the O’Driscoll goes. Otherwise you can get rid of the ‘Jack’ and the ‘best wishes’ and sell the jersey with Brian’s name on it. Jonny Wilkinson told them about that.

The final curtain awaits

This evening at the RDS Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll will wear the blue of Leinster for a final time in a playing capacity. Players and parents are ready. GO’D: I haven’t really thought about it being poignant. We are ready for this retirement, Brian is ready for it and so are we. All the family are going. There will be a degree of poignancy but the overriding emotion is that we have had a year to prepare for this. Certainly I’m ready. How about you Frank?

FO’D: Not the slightest worry, regret will I have (laughter). I am going to this game, hoping that they (Leinster) win. If they don’t, they don’t. Hoping that he doesn’t get injured, if he does, he does.

Hope if he does it’s not’s serious. Then I will turn the key in it and say those 15 years were fantastic, now let’s get working on this golf handicap, let’s get this garden going, let’s do this with the grandchildren, let’s go on holidays etc; I won’t give a thought to rugby. Not a thought.

PC: I would have to say the very opposite. I know Leo’s circumstances are going to be very different, he’s still going to be working in the sport. But we will still have our two season tickets and we will continue to go or at least I will (laughter).

FC: We have been enormously privileged. Some of the most intensely pleasurable moments in my life were around rugby games. I remember being on the pitch with Leo and Malcolm O’Kelly after the 2009 (Heineken Cup Final). I’ll never forget that. The whole reaction in the airport, I’ll never forget that too.

We have been privileged to have those moments. It just can’t go on forever. It’s ending for us this weekend. I don’t know what it will be like going to a game next season. We might not even see him. He’s going to be somewhere there and we’ll be rooting for the same team but the pressure will be different. At the moment I catch every ball he catches, I make every tackle he does, I feel every hit he takes. I’ll be able to watch the game in a little more comfort.


FC: The 2009 Heineken Cup Final. It was the most pleasurable, a fantastic run through the knock-out stages. That and the under-10s in pre-Millennium Trophy international in 1988 (laughter).

PC: There are countries that I went to that I would not have otherwise visited. Argentina twice, Japan; I could never envisage doing that. Frank went to Krasnoyarsk.

GO’D: Our most spine chilling experience if you want to call it that was something that happened after Brian scored his try in the Gabba (2001) in Brisbane for the Lions. You were bussed out to the stadium and back into the city afterwards.

We were sitting at the back of the bus and it filled up with Lions supporters. Nobody had a clue who we were. Suddenly the whole bus starting singing ‘Waltzing O’Driscoll’ I will never forget it. We kind of squeezed each other’s hands; it was quite spine chilling.

FO’D: The day he played his first underage international, I was so excited because I had a son who was now an international and you hoped that it would go on from there. I will never forget that feeling.

The other thing was how surreal it was when he scored the hat-trick in France (2000), I remember turning to Ger after the game, giving her a hug and saying this is real. You are not dreaming this. This is real.

GO’D: It was a Sunday game and we were flying home on Ryanair, from Beauvais. We were on the train going back into Paris and Susan, our second daughter, was in Australia. She rang us when we were on the train. I can still hear the excitement in her voice as she laughed: ‘Mum and Dad, I am a celebrity out here.’

FO’D: She told everyone in the pub, who she was.

FC: One memory that’ll stand out about Brian is his final game in an Ireland jersey at the Aviva stadium, where everyone stayed back to a person. The atmosphere in that stadium to celebrate his career was extraordinary.

FO’D: It’s been absolutely brilliant. There is nothing negative about it whatsoever. The friends made have ensured that it’s been an unbelievable journey.

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