Johnny Sexton led the tributes to Sean O’Brien as he gave the injured Leinster hero the honour of raising aloft the Guinness Pro14 trophy at Celtic Park on Saturday night.
O’Brien missed what should have been his final game for his home province due to a hip injury but captain Sexton asked the Tullow Tank, who will depart Leinster for London Irish after the World Cup, to take the captain’s role and lift the trophy after a hard-fought victory in Glasgow.
O’Brien, 32, has not played since the Heineken Champions Cup final defeat to Saracens in Newcastle two weeks ago and following victory in front of a record 47,128 PRO14 final crowd, Sexton said: “We knew early enough in the week that Seánie was struggling a little bit.
“And we wanted to make sure his last contribution wasn't Saracens. His last memory now will be lifting the trophy, there's not too many people who have lifted the trophy by themselves in Leinster. It's guys like Leo (Cullen) and Isa (Nacewa), they're the only two. The rest of the time we always do it in twos.
“It was fitting for him, we're really going to miss him. I'm going to miss him.”
Sitting next to head coach and former team-mate Cullen, Sexton said of O’Brien: “To be fair, he's one of the best players I've ever played with. As a forward, I'd say he's the best. No offence to Leo.
Just, other forwards in the world didn't have his drive, as a leader and a player we're going to miss him.
Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster also spoke glowingly of O’Brien, adding: "He has to be up there in terms of what he's delivered in the game.
"I feel that I never really got the chance to coach him. He was at his best on the Lions and obviously in my time at Leinster, he's been injured a lot of the time. Jamie Heaslip was similar, where you would have loved to have coached him more.
"Throughout the time I've spent with Sean over the last few years, I've been so impressed with his personality, his integrity, his leadership, his desire to improve.
"He raises the standards of everyone around him and people talk about what his point of difference is - his point of difference is how he makes other people in the squad feel.
"It's a testament to his influence that he was given the trophy to lift because I don't think anyone can doubt his influence on Leinster in the last 10 or 15 years."
Leinster needed all their available experience and mettle to retain their PRO14 crown, two weeks after losing their European title to Saracens. With Sexton having missed an early penalty kick in a game played in almost constant rainfall, Glasgow delighted the majority of the crowd in their home city by taking a 7-0 lead on 14 minutes after back-rower Matt Fagerson grabbed the opening try and Adam Hastings converted.
Yet Leinster hit straight back, scrum-half Luke McGrath charging down a Stuart Hogg kick inside his own 22 and Garry Ringrose reacting quickest to dot down the spinning ball in the narrow in-goal area. Sexton missed the touchline conversion but Hastings made no mistake with a 23rd-minute penalty to send Glasgow into a 10-5 lead.
The champions, though, did not panic and finished the first half stronger, with a 28th-minute try from man of the match Cian Healy converted by Sexton, who added a 35th-minute penalty to send Leinster into the break with a 15-10 lead.
The gap widened again seven minutes after the restart as Sexton capitalised on a 48th-minute yellow card for Warriors centre Kyle Steyn for killing the ball at the breakdown with another penalty. There was still time, however, for Glasgow to fight back and when Rob Kearney was yellow-carded on 66 minutes, Dave Rennie’s side struck.
Kearney was fortunate to only receive a yellow from referee Nigel Owens after taking out opposing full-back Hogg in the air but Glasgow used their temporary one-man advantage by stretching Leinster as replacement hooker Grant Stewart scored in the corner to narrow the scoreline to 18-15, Hastings crucially missing the touchline conversion.
Leinster did enough to see out the victory in the remaining five minutes but centre Robbie Henshaw admitted: “Incredibly tough game, the conditions made it quite tricky to play in. We didn’t get to run too much ball, but it was quite an entertaining game for the fans and a great game to be involved in.”
S Hogg (H Jones, 66); T Seymour, K Steyn, S Johnson (P Horne, 55), DTH van der Merwe; A Hastings, A Price (G Horne, 57); J Bhatti (O Kebble, 53), F Brown (G Stewart, 25), Z Fagerson (S Halanukonuka, 67); S Cummings, J Gray; R Harley (R Wilson, 53), C Gibbins - captain (T Gordon, 79), M Fagerson.
Yellow Card: K Steyn
: R Kearney; J Larmour; G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton - captain (R Byrne, ), L McGrath (N McCarthy, 76); C Healy (E Byrne, 63), S Cronin (B Byrne, 64), T Furlong (A Porter, 64); S Fardy, J Ryan; R Ruddock (R Molony, 79), J van der Flier (M Deegan, 73), J Conan
Yellow Card: R Kearney 66-76 mins.
Replacement not used: R O’Loughlin
Nigel Owens (Wales)