Tuesday 28 March 2017

'If you hold onto the bitterness, you're going to turn into a horrible person'

Leo Cullen's moment has arrived at last but he's heard that line many times before, as he tells John O'Brien

Frank Cullen tells a story of the day Leinster won the Heineken Cup in 2009. He had made his way on to the pitch just as his son prepared to hoist the trophy, imagining he would savour the moment, milk it for all its worth. But that isn't what happened. Instead he watched as Leo lifted the cup and passed it on almost in the same moment, as if the handles were made of molten steel, mortified to be the centre of attention a second longer than he needed to be.

As soon as he witnessed it, Frank knew it was the only way it could be. All the details added up. The way Leo called the entire squad, not just the match-day 22, to ascend the podium with him. His stubborn insistence that Chris Whitaker, the retiring Australian scrumhalf, should jointly accept the trophy with him. "Typical Leo," his father thought. Deflecting attention away from himself. Remaining true to his own character.

Three years earlier, Frank and his wife Paula had been present the day Leicester won the Premiership title at Twickenham. Because they were returning to Leinster after two productive years at Welford Road, the club allowed Leo and Shane Jennings to accept the trophy together and Frank remembered the indelible imprint the gesture left on his son. It spoke to everything he valued most about the game.

Years earlier, Leo had been part of an Ireland under 19 team run by Declan Kidney and Jim Glennon. It was a talented group of players, but the coaches had a critical problem. No matter how many times they ran their eyes over the list of names they couldn't identify an obvious captain. Glennon still recalls the day they met at the old Lansdowne clubhouse to thrash out a final solution.

After a long period of deliberation, their gaze fell upon Cullen. They knew it was a gamble. Cullen was too quiet and reserved to be obvious leadership material. Yet in all his years playing and watching rugby, Glennon had never seen a more technically gifted forward. Cullen's mastery of the basics astonished him. He didn't commit needless errors and never put a foot wrong on and off the field. So they went with their gut instincts and, almost by default, discovered an exemplary leader.

In a way Cullen is old-school now. He doesn't mind that. With Leinster and Ireland he sees a younger generation emerging, sniping eagerly at the old stagers' heels. The Facebook and Twitter generation. He thinks it is good that they have a means of communication they feel comfortable with, but it isn't his world. A part of him still thinks it is odd to text when you can simply dial a number and talk.

Before Leinster games he will slip away to a quiet corner of the pitch with Nathan Hines and together they will work some warmth into their creaking bones. When the whistle blows, they all come together. And that fascinates him. The disparate sections of a team coming together as a single unit. It's what first drew him to the game as a nine-year-old and continues to enthral him in the autumn of his career.

"I enjoy the team dynamic," he says. "I think that's the beauty of the game. It's my personality. I like the unity of the team. It's not about the individual and I feel very strongly about that.

"The thing about lifting the trophy and having Whits up there with me. I'd been out injured in the early part of the year and he was captain for half the games. He was a bit embarrassed about it, but I was adamant he shared the moment. It's about the team. That's the game."

And it is Cullen too. The ultimate team player. The complete absence of ego. That has always been his greatest strength. And, sometimes too perhaps, his greatest weakness.

* * * * *

Over Christmas he bumped into Johnny Campbell, an old friend from his days with the Irish schools. Campbell coaches the Terenure senior cup side now and invited Cullen over for a session. Afterwards they shared warm memories of great days gone by. When they toured Australia in 1996 and beat all around them, Johnny was the joker in the pack. "An hilarious character," says Cullen. More than the victories, he remembers the bonds they formed.

Even then he knew how blessed he was. At Blackrock, he was part of a set-up routinely referred to as the "Dream Team", a dazzling collection of talents spoken of with a reverence not even afforded to Brian O'Driscoll. His best friend Tom Keating was one of them. Ciarán Scally and Barry Gibney were others. Nailed-on future stars of the game. No one spoke of Cullen in the same hushed tones.

And that suited him, of course. He was a No 8 then and it still wasn't a requirement for back-rows to be the swashbuckling ball-carriers they are today. Away from the limelight he worked diligently and improved his game. He thinks of his old friends now. A few drifted away, others were claimed by injury. Dave Quinlan retired three years ago. Only himself and Bob Casey left now. Quietly and without fanfare, he endured and prospered.

Funny to think back, though. At the time he was about to evolve into a second row to further his career. Casey and Peter Bracken were the first-choice lock combination for Ireland schools. A year after them came Mick O'Driscoll and Donncha O'Callaghan. Another year on came Paul O'Connell. A generation of quality second rows falling off the production line almost in one job lot.

"Who knows why it pans out like that? I remember playing a game for the Ireland under 21s where Bob and Micko were in the second row, Donncha was at No 6 and I was No 8. So you had four second rows playing in the same pack and all those guys are still around now. Still at the top of their game. I don't know if that's unique but it's unusual all the same."

Cullen was quieter than the others, but he burned just as intensely with ambition. When he won his first cap against New Zealand in 2002, it was special the way all debuts are special, but he remembers thinking it wasn't before time. He was 24 and had been coveting the chance since he was 20. He had been four years waiting and, even then, he'd only made the bench because O'Connell had withdrawn the day before. A cap by default.

"I would've played a lot with Bob and he made his debut at the World Cup in '99. He got in the door ahead of me. In fairness, he was starting ahead of me at Leinster a bit, though we were chopping and changing at the time. He kind of skipped the ladder ahead of me. So I was there thinking when am I going to get my chance? But it's 11 years ago now I suppose. I don't remember exactly what I was thinking at the time."

Casey had an obvious advantage. He was a second-row lifer while Cullen was still adjusting to the position, playing catch-up as quickly as he could. He has a few regrets from that time he likes to share with the academy kids. He played so much rugby that his physical growth became stunted. That was how it was back then. At one stage he was playing under 20 for his club and province and under 21 for Ireland. Games came in staccato bursts, like machine-gun fire. He'd play a game, recover, then play again. As he did, others developed physically past him.

Still, by 2003 he felt he was there. O'Connell was struggling with a back injury and his discomfort was Cullen's opportunity. In two years he amassed 14 caps at a time Ireland were enjoying an 11-game winning streak. The confidence surged through him. A place in the World Cup squad seemed a racing certainty. Then Eddie O'Sullivan dropped the bombshell that Gary Longwell was going instead. No offence to Longwell, but Cullen couldn't understand the decision and the passing of time has brought no fresh perspective with it.

O'Sullivan had dropped a hint a few months earlier. With Longwell and O'Connell both injured, Cullen had featured in the first four games of the Six Nations and bubbled with anticipation before the Grand Slam decider against England. The two locks were fit again, though, and Cullen found himself not just displaced from the team, but shunted out of the match-day 22. Even now it jolts him thinking about it. The tortuous bus journey to Lansdowne Road: with the squad but not feeling part of it.

"Obviously Ireland got pumped that day and, to be honest, I experienced mixed emotions watching it. I was there as 23rd man and it was a strange feeling. It was pretty disappointing at the time. It was in my head that there was a chance I might still have to play in the game. So you have to change your mindset quite quickly. That whole week was pretty tough to tell the truth."

In his autobiography, O'Sullivan describes Cullen's World Cup omission as "one of my worst experiences as Ireland coach". The words hold nothing but cold comfort. In Cullen's recollection, the exchange they had in O'Sullivan's room in CityWest, as described in the book, actually happened before the England game. The World Cup rocket was fired over the telephone. What isn't in doubt, however, was the fury of Cullen's reaction. Couldn't accept it. Still can't.

"We went on tour that summer. I started two games against Tonga and Samoa. I dislocated my shoulder against Samoa and I remember thinking this isn't working out for me. I got replaced by Donncha. He made the World Cup. I was sitting at home watching it on TV. Actually in a hospital bed for a lot of it.

"Obviously I tried to turn it around. We played Italy at Thomond Park in a pre-World Cup game and I was delighted with my performance. I thought I was there. Chatting to the guys afterwards, they were saying 'you've done enough'. That was my honest thought at the time. It's not like I'm trying to bullshit anyone. So, yeah, I was shocked to get the call. I was upset. I probably didn't make a huge amount of sense with my arguments or logic. Eddie had done the press conference at that stage. The decision was made. There was nothing I could do about it."

In 2007, the dynamic was different. He still thought he was good enough to make the squad, but he harboured no illusions. He had just finished a glorious two-year spell at Leicester. He'd left for England in 2005 at a time when Leinster were in a state of flux and 2003 was still preying heavily on his mind. He needed change, even assuming -- naively as it happened -- that performing well for Leicester would improve his Ireland chances. No regrets, anyway. He thrived at Welford Road and improved himself as a player.

At Leicester, they appreciated his gifts so much that, during his second season, he captained the side 15 times and their bewilderment at his international exclusion echoed the sad refrain of his career. Why? He feels others are better placed to answer that question. He has 24 caps and Ireland have won 22 of those games. Not that he was the difference between winning and losing, mind, but he knows he did alright any time the call came. The biggest stage held no terrors for him.

In his worst moments he has had to fight feelings of bitterness and rejection. He's honest enough to admit that. Experience has taught him that people are always at hand, assuring him recognition is waiting around the next corner, doing no more than telling him what they think he wishes to hear. He knows they mean well anyway. The trick is not to let it torture you or suck you into a dark place. The years have taught him how to cope.

Truth be told, he's in too good a place right now for that to happen. During the summer he had surgery to finally fix a recurring shoulder injury that's dogged him since a schools' game against CBC Cork when he was 17, and he feels stronger than ever. He returned for the crunch Heineken Cup game against Saracens at Wembley in October, just as Leinster's season was kicking into gear, and by November he was buzzing, itching for a chance to shine during the dreary November international series that never arrived.

He felt deflated not to be involved, surprised by the intensity of the hurt he felt. Older and wiser, he thought he was inured to the pain wrought by the whims of selectors, but he was wrong. And he knows it will be the same when the team to face Italy next Saturday is revealed. He'll feel elated to be included but can't imagine the force of the blow until he is face to face with the reality of exclusion.

"I think I've learned to channel my reaction in the right way. Angry initially, but I'll have my case. It's almost like preparing a case for your own trial. But it's about putting your plan back in place too. Part of the reason for having surgery last summer was I want to play in the World Cup. That's the medium-term goal. I'm approaching the end of my career and I've missed out on two World Cups. This is the pathway.

"I don't want to be a fucking passenger at the World Cup either. I want to play a participating role. A playing role ideally. If it works out, brilliant; if it doesn't, I'll move on to something else. That's the reality. You just have to dust yourself off. If you hold on to the bitterness, you're just going to turn into a horrible person. It'll eat you alive."

For the next few days the nerves will gnaw away at him. The infernal business of trying to second-guess Kidney's thoughts. People will assure him he is a shoo-in, as they always do, but he assumes nothing. Not with Kidney. Not with anybody. Given the path he has travelled, how could he?

He knows there is nothing he can do but continue to work hard and wait and hope. Feel the joy and righteousness of selection if it comes to pass. Channel the pain as best he can and move on if it doesn't. Same as it has always been.

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