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Captain, leader, legend - How Leo Cullen has transformed Leinster



Leo Cullen has helped to transform Leinster from a side ‘that stopped fighting to break the mould in which we were cast’ to a side on the brink of establishing their status as the most successful club in European rugby. Photo: INPHO

Leo Cullen has helped to transform Leinster from a side ‘that stopped fighting to break the mould in which we were cast’ to a side on the brink of establishing their status as the most successful club in European rugby. Photo: INPHO

Leo Cullen has helped to transform Leinster from a side ‘that stopped fighting to break the mould in which we were cast’ to a side on the brink of establishing their status as the most successful club in European rugby. Photo: INPHO

Leo! Leo! Leo!

Leo Cullen was born to lead.

As a child, he led the Irish rugby team and his beloved Everton, forged a role as Ryder Cup captain and, occasionally, the Dubs or Crokes. In the imaginary reality of his sprawling back garden, he won every game.

Brian O'Driscoll recalls when they played together in a Blackrock College 'dream team' in school, Cullen, even then an inspiring figure, dropping a ball, a rarity, but still being acclaimed by the crowd.

"Leo! Leo! Leo!" That team would sweep the boards. That boy is a now a man. And he still can't stop winning.

Leinster have won all four of their European finals and Cullen has led them in every one; three times as captain and, last season, becoming the first person to secure the title as captain and coach.

Today, he oversees the attempt by Leinster to become the most successful team in European club rugby history as they face their fifth final against the best of England, Saracens.

"It's so crucial to have a guy who knows European rugby like Leo does, but more importantly knows Leinster the way he does, knows the players and what makes us tick," was how Johnny Sexton painted his influence yesterday.

In this week of managerial rock stars, however, don't expect Cullen, in the moment of hopeful success, to shed tears or overly emote, to launch himself on an impromptu lap of honour even as so many - "Leo! Leo! Leo!" - acclaim him.


His side, even if moderated today by the needs of a final against a stern defensive outfit, may be supremely enigmatic but only because their leader's inflexible equanimity allows them to be.

He is their guiding hand, their languid lodestar, creating the conditions for them to strive for more glory while utterly disinterested in acquiring any of the credit.

He has changed Leinster. But Leinster hasn't changed him.

"He's not a bulls***ter," says former team-mate and friend Reggie Corrigan. "He has never changed since the first day he walked into the dressing-room.


Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile

Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile

Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile

"There are no airs or graces with him about being so successful as a coach. Some coaches do change, and I've seen it, they get this attitude. But Leo never changed. You can't say that about many people."

Leinster is not just a team now, but a multi-million-euro operation with over 100 full-time staff and tentacles reaching into every corner of the province, a far cry from the early days of professionalism, when Cullen took his first steps in the sport.

Mick Dawson, the chief executive, is the off-field brains and, in tandem with Cullen's expertise, dovetails the leadership of the organisation and it is the latter's ability to delegate responsibility while assuming quiet authority which glues everything together.

"There's this concept in business leadership called the window and the mirror," says Cullen's former team-mate Aidan McCullen, who now operates in the world of business and leadership culture.

"There are those who look out the window and give credit to others as well as being able to look in the mirror and take responsibility. It is never about him, only them. Complete humility."

There is steeliness there, too, from dropping internationals for big games to robustly defending Leinster from outside interference.

During the elongated Joey Carbery transfer saga, Cullen chose, not for the first time, to rail against his employers; he is rigidly opposed to external influence even while acknowledging his role in greasing the wheels of the national side.

Former hooker Bernard Jackman recalls a game during Cullen's first European-winning campaign as captain, when he suffered a stinger against Ulster and delayed his throw-in.

Cullen shouted the odds - "he told me afterwards he thought I was taking the p**s" - but the moment would pass with an apology.

"He is well able to go bananas," says Jackman. "He certainly won't tolerate poor standards or errors. He wants everyone to understand their role but then account for it. And as a player and a coach that's important.

"He'll hold everyone to account. He wouldn't give a s**t who it was. Certain players in Leinster would have got away with stuff.

"Now Michael Cheika helped change all that. And people like Isa Nacewa came in and were intolerant of poor standards also. But he will also hold himself to account. If he comes up with a poor strategy or makes a bad call on what an opposition might do causing a turnover, he will be the first one to call that out on himself.

"And then what he has is a great ability to problem-solve very quickly. He does so much preparation but it's the ability to stay calm when you've lost four balls and you're trying not to lose a fifth. And that translates into the coaching box."

But the iron fist betrays a velvet glove.

Cheika once asked him, after a painful home European defeat to speak to his men; Cullen went around every player and told them how highly regarded them; next week, they won with a bonus-point in France.

As captain, he sent an email to every player requesting they text the holder of the jersey number below - telling them just what they meant to each other. Behind the nerdish rugby brain there burns a keen, holistic soul.

Destiny may have guided him but fate intervened, too.

After all, the Leinster Cullen left in 2005 with a heavy heart was a different beast to that which he returned two years later, before captaining a hitherto underperforming squad which finally conquered Europe in 2009.

And his ascension to the top job in Leinster only came about when his predecessor, Matt O'Connor, was prematurely sacked and, via IRFU instruction, a swift global quest left the club with no option but to turn to their recently retired, three-time European-winning captain.

Simple twists of fate, elaborate turns of fortune.

Even his first year, a failure in Europe, and then in a league final against unheralded Connacht, hardly hinted at bright days ahead.

As always, he would look in the mirror and acknowledge that help was required.

Cullen's eagerness to look outside, from Graham Henry to Stuart Lancaster, as well as a beady eye on keen recruitment and promotion from within, would re-route the temporarily listing ship.


Then again, Cullen himself had absorbed so much of his knowledge externally, too from his two-year stint in Leicester to know how to radically re-shape how he felt about his career and his province.

"We stopped fighting to break out of the mould in which we were cast," is Cullen's recall.

Leicester were everything Leinster were not: a community club, spirited, united; Cullen recalls his new colleagues watching a Leinster game on TV and laughing.

"It typifies him that he left in the first-place, a willingness to try something new," says Jackman.

"It's not such an easy narrative that he goes over and then comes back and shows everyone how things were done," says Corrigan.

"I mean people forget how lucky Leinster were. Without 'Bloodgate', it was all over. Otherwise who knows what might have happened?"

And who knows if anyone other than Cullen could have cultivated the change.

"He's probably not as appreciated as he should be, perhaps even by those around him," notes Jackman. "The players see Stuart being the driver and the brains but they don't know that Leo is in the office at 6am and going home at 8pm.

"He's low-key. He won't always lift people's emotions every day or inspire them with a rallying speech.

"You're the project manager of a multi-million-euro business. It's not sexy stuff at all."

But today he could make sporting history. Most likely, he will cede the glory. "When he won it in 2009," says dad Frank, I thought he'd never let go but he immediately handed the trophy to the retiring Chris Whitaker. That's Leo."

"It's amazing he doesn't get the recognition for what he has achieved," adds Corrigan.

"Without Leo directing the whole operation, there wouldn't be the environment for others to thrive. He's the orchestrator."

And today once more, when his choir sings his audience will acclaim him with an ancient chant.

"Leo! Leo! Leo!"

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