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Leo's sweet on Toffees

Kevin Ratcliffe has a lot to answer for. As unlikely a hero for a towering 33-year-old 6'6" second row from Newtownmountkennedy, there was an honesty and an ethic which inspired his followers.

Maybe it was the glory that Everton enjoyed? Perhaps it was the colour blue that they wore? Probably it was because he was a natural born leader.

Irrespective, Ratcliffe enticed a young Leo Cullen to dream of success and though the codes may have been different, the same methodology and reasoning which charts the pathways to success remain intertwined.

Widely regarded as one of the quickest centre halves in British football, Welshman Ratcliffe became Everton captain in 1983 and during his tenure guided the Toffees to the 1984 FA Cup, the Football League Championship (or modern day Premier League title, lest those of a more recent vintage forget) in 1984/85 the same year that the Liverpudlians lifted the UEFA Cup Winners Cup. It was a halcyon era in the club's history and a period which captivated youngsters across these isles. It was no surprise that the reach of Everton's success extended to Ireland, as Kevin Sheedy was a key figure in their midfield.

Talk to Cullen about that era and he pores over names such as Andy Gray, Pat Van den Hauwe, Gary Lineker, Tony Cottee and arguably the greatest goalkeeper of them all, Neville Southall.


"It was some team," he says, with a smile. "I suppose when you're seven or eight years of age the successful teams in whichever sport attract you and there was always something about Everton that I liked."

In many respects, the same values that Cullen could be said to live by ring as true as the club's Latin motto which adorns the Everton crest: 'Nil Satis Nisi Optimum' meaning 'Nothing but the best is good enough'.

It's both a motivation and an aspiration.

A relaxed Cullen reflected earlier this week on the games just gone, be it in the blue of Leinster or, indeed, green of Ireland and he admits to feeling, in a word, frustrated. On a landmark 150th cap in Cardiff a little under a fortnight ago he felt off the pace.

His own biggest critic, it was a deflating result which ended a fine run of winning form in the league which stretched back to late November.

"I had spent the previous three weeks with Ireland so no matter what anyone says it can be difficult to switch mindsets from national camps to your province or vice versa.

"Looking back I was disappointed in my own performance because I felt that I was slow getting into the game.

"I probably lacked that bit of sharpness.

"That's why I was keen to get back on the training field as early as possible with Leinster this week to get back into the routine.

"We have to be sharp and we have to be ready against the Scarlets because they're flying at the moment. A few seasons back they came to The RDS and hammered us out the gate so we know what they're capable of."

Cullen draws similarities between the development of the Llanelli-based side and that of his home province who have each praised youth and watched it prosper. "It's encouraging to see so many youngsters coming through this year. Rhys (Ruddock), Dominic (Ryan) and now Fergus (McFadden) has gone on and gotten his first Ireland cap. In the past when I was first starting off, players were balancing part-time jobs with playing rugby and before professionalism really gripped Irish rugby you'd have a pretty simple structure whereby you'd play interpros, Heineken Cup and then back to play club rugby.

"The climate has changed considerably over the last decade and I think what you're seeing is young players are better prepared early on to adapt to the rigours of Magners League and then European matches, which can only be a good thing.

"Professionalism reaches players at a younger age now."

In a sense, the crosstown traffic up the top half of the Magners League is causing most clubs, with the possible exception of pace-setters Munster, to pay more than a concerning glance each week as clubs pick points off one another in the race to the top four.

"Friday night is a huge game for both teams because it's getting pretty congested up the top of the league.

"Because of our poor start in the league we have very little margin for error whereas last year we started strongly and continued in the same fashion.

"We don't have that luxury this year."

As club captain he has watched deputies such as Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings, Sean O'Brien, Rhys Ruddock and recently Isa Nacewa wear the armband which gives him comfort, knowing that collective responsibility has become engrained in the culture of the province.

Cullen cites the level of competition as a key factor in the squad's evolution. The club's identity is based on one significant component, but the process is a journey rather than a destination.

"Hard work", he concludes. "Talented players will always come around but you have to have mental toughness and resolve. I'm not saying that we're there yet, but we're in a relatively good place just now.

"Some clubs may have bigger financial backing, but our focus is on keeping on striving to be better.

"To achieve that you need mental toughness. Those values become engrained and a good culture within a province helps cultivate that."

As the patch close to his heart reminds us, nothing but the best is good enough.