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Finally, it's time to say last goodbye

By Niall Crozier

The curtain comes down on three domestic seasons on Saturday with Toulon and Castres Olympique meeting in the final of the Top 14 at Stade de France, Saracens and Northampton Saints squaring up in the Aviva Premiership title shoot-out at Twickenham and Leinster hosting Glasgow Warriors in the final of the RaboDirect PRO12.

Make that 'the final RaboDirect PRO12 game' for once the full-time whistle sounds that will be the end of those particular sponsors' involvement. It has been a good relationship – hopefully good enough to have convinced others of the monetary and enhanced brand awareness wisdom of filling the void.

The set-up for that Dublin showdown could not have been better scripted, with the top two teams after 22 regular-season matches and the play-off semi-finals now going head to head for the prize. First v second? Ideal.

Lob in the fact that it will be the final hurrah for Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen, both of whom – finally – are hanging up their boots, and you have all the ingredients necessary for a night to remember.

This time it really is the last farewell of what has been a protracted series of final bows for O'Driscoll. To date each has gone perfectly for the man who has done more than any other to boost Irish rugby's profile at home and abroad.

His final game for Ireland in Dublin just happened to be the occasion on which he set a new world record for Test appearances – 140.

That in itself was something to savour, but Drico then proceeded to apply a rich layer of icing to his already sumptuous career cake with a man of the match performance which saw him create three of Ireland's seven tries in the 46-7 rout of the Italians.

The ovation he received from his home city audience was one which will linger long in the memory of those of us fortunate enough to have witnessed it first hand.

A week later, his last ever game for Ireland went perfectly, too. Knowing that victory would clinch the Six Nations title, his Irish team-mates gave their talismanic colleague the perfect send-off by beating the French 22-20 at Stade de France.

Context? It was only their second win in Paris in 42 years and their first since 2000 when the then 21-year-old O'Driscoll announced himself on the world stage by bagging a hat-trick.

The warmth and magnanimity of the send-off he received from the partisan Parisian crowd on March 15 past merely served to underline his status and popularity as one of the world's genuine sporting icons.

So to date we've had his final international outing in Dublin, followed by his last ever appearance in a green jersey in Paris. Both have been fairytale occasions with the perfect outcome each time.

Saturday night will see the last line of the final chapter penned and once again all of the pieces are in place for the perfect conclusion with Leinster poised to give him a hero's send-off, too, in the form of a PRO12 winner's medal.

Glasgow, of course, will aim to spoil the party, but in view of the hosts' awesome record in Dublin – unbeaten in the PRO12 at the RDS since Ulster famously lowered their blue flag 14 months ago – coupled with the adulation of the vast majority of the 18,000-strong crowd, most of the money will be on another home win.

Centre superstar O'Driscoll cannot be blamed for the fact that unsung lock Cullen has been somewhat eclipsed by all of this. It is unfortunate that it has been that way for the truth of the matter is that it was Cullen, not O'Driscoll, who led Leinster to the Heineken Cup on three occasions, in addition to which he has played more games for the province than his much better known colleague, namely 218 to 185.

Cullen has been an unflinching rock in the Leinster pack.

No frills, no razzle-dazzle, just sheer unadulterated, wholly-reliable, season-after-season graft at the coalface.

A leader par excellence, an exceptional on-field organiser and a model professional – for all of that, he too is deserving of every accolade.

And when pre-season work gets under way, he will be back in the Leinster fold as their forwards coach.

It has been another long, hard season and for those going on tour it doesn't end on Saturday night. One cannot but admire these players' durability, albeit that I worry about the relentless nature of the demands placed upon them.

Yes, they're paid for it these days, but money cannot be used to buy off nature's limits as to the level of incessant punishment the human body can withstand.

Belfast Telegraph


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