Friday 23 June 2017

'We have 15 star players starting' - Cullen

Leinster coach defends selection policy

Ian Madigan is all smiles during training ahead of tonight’s game against Edinburgh Photo: Sportsfile
Ian Madigan is all smiles during training ahead of tonight’s game against Edinburgh Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

As Sky contemplate withdrawing their services from the Pro12, with viewing figures purportedly plummeting on a weekly basis, a weekend without Champions Cup involvement for its participants has focused many minds.

Connacht and Glasgow aside, the quality of rugby being provided has, it is also charged, proved itself unfit for purpose as the swashbuckling English and French threaten to dominate Europe. And traditional bugbears such as the regular absence of box-office names from competing sides still weigh down the competition, too.

With poor weather forecast for this evening, for the visit of an Edinburgh side who will never be compared to the Harlem Globetrotters, the decision of the Leinster brains trust to allow Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Heaslip a second successive weekend off will rankle with many.

It will not be surprising at all if some Leinster supporters in the far-flung reaches of the province decide not to bother completing their exhaustive round-trip to the RDS when their only chance of glimpsing Heaslip this week would have been on 'A Question of Sport'.

Meritocracy

It's the sort of thing that has damaged the Pro12's reputation for several seasons now and, even though meritocracy has forced sides to up their game this term, the league is finding it difficult to shake off its second-rate tag.

Leinster coach Leo Cullen's responsibility is not to defend the questionable health of the Pro12 but he did so anyway with a round and robust rebuttal of those who continue to decry the perceived poor relation of Europe's big three leagues.

"We've got 15 star players starting," was Cullen's response when asked about the absence of two of Leinster's highest-paid and world-class players.

"That would be my message. This is the best team to represent Leinster this weekend. These are 15 star players in my eyes."

While few outside its Celtic/Italian borders will pay much attention about the Pro12 run-in, the Leinster coach is keen to shrug off the public perception of a league that still struggles to capture the imagination.

"It is easy to just knock things," he argues, "but there are good things about the league as well. The league has got more competitive, you can see there is a lot more excitement about the games that are coming up this week.

"We are sitting in first, just about, playing against Edinburgh who are pushing to get a European spot. There is a lot of stake in that game.

"There is a lot of hype about Munster who are in sixth playing against Connacht who are in second and everyone knows what's at stake for those two teams. Then you look at Scarlets who are at home to Glasgow, one sitting fourth and one sitting third, so really exciting match-up.

"So I would rather talk of the positives of those games rather than talk about the negatives or compare us to other leagues. We could compare ourselves to Super Rugby.

"But why not talk about the positive that there were 43,000 in the Aviva for our last home game? How many teams around the world had 43,000 for their last home game? I wouldn't say there was any and that's an unbelievable positive. I would say it is easy to pick things apart but can we focus on the odd good thing as well?

"Because it is easy to bash the Pro12 standard of this and that but we are making do with what we've got and it is important not to lose sight of some of the really positive things as well.

"The Pro12 doesn't have 100 years of tradition like some of the other leagues so we just have to try and grow it. Maybe in 100 years' time we will be as good as the Top 14 or the Premiership.

"But there are a lot of positives. To have 43,000 people at a regular Pro12 game is pretty exciting. And this week, you will see full-blooded encounters just as you will get in some of the other leagues about the place.

"There are logistical issues that the other two competitions don't have. If you stack us up to Super Rugby, which again is across different nations, you see them playing in big stadiums with not many people in them, but people will rave about the quality of rugby perhaps.

"We don't play in the same conditions as some of those teams do, we've got different challenges.

"You could say we're the poor relation because there's not as many resources here but we have to grow with what we've got.

"It's easy to say we don't have as much resources or you're not as good as other leagues, but the Pro12 teams have competed pretty well in Europe over the years.

"There's this cyclical nature to it. Back in 2007 there was an all-English final, Wasps versus Leicester, and I was playing for Leicester at the time; in 2012 there's an all-Irish final so it does shift as the years go on. Hopefully next year there will be an all-Irish final again - that's what we're aspiring to."

Harlequins' head coach Conor O'Shea was keen to stress that the typically parochial image of the poor, impoverished Irish province was a tad misplaced down the years as he discovered to his cost when being repeatedly outbid by his Irish rivals.

And, even if the charges of financial penury are swallowed whole by gullible supporters, the same imbalances applied when Irish provinces dominated Europe over the past decade.

"To a certain degree," concedes Cullen. "So we've got to be as smart as we possibly can with the resources we have. The market place is incredibly competitive for sure.

"It's probably been more competitive than it's been, but all the time you've got to find out what your point of difference is.

"We're still aspiring to be the best team in Europe so we're still working toward that goal."

Irish Independent

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