Thursday 22 March 2018

Cullen fears 'pit bull' influence of old-school Leicester coach

Leo Cullen. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Leo Cullen. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

Hugh Farrelly

Old school -- the phrase Leo Cullen used to describe Leicester Tigers yesterday and one that could be equally applied to Leinster's second-row leader.

Cullen spent two successful seasons with Leicester between 2005 and 2007 and that experience has given the 33-year-old a special insight into the challenge facing Leinster in tomorrow's sold-out Heineken Cup quarter-final at Lansdowne Road.

The Wicklow man made 56 appearances for the Tigers, including 15 as captain, and bought in enthusiastically to hard-nosed work ethic of Welford Road. He returned to Leinster a tougher and wiser player. Indeed, it was when Cullen and Shane Jennings came back to their native province from the Tigers that Leinster first started to show the forward steel that would backbone their 2009 Heineken Cup triumph and recent spell of dominance over Munster.

Cullen and Leicester were a good fit. It is easy to forget that, in his early years, Cullen was a footballing No 8 playing his early senior rugby there in the AIL for Blackrock, while Bob Casey and Hubi Kos packed down in the second-row.

As the years rolled on, Cullen moved to his natural position in the engine room and in an era where style is often valued above substance, notably in Super rugby, the Leinster man's no-nonsense, direct style represents something of a throwback -- and a highly effective one at that.

"It was a real big learning curve for me over there," said Cullen. "With such a big emphasis on front-five forward play, it would be hard not to improve as a player. It's just a bit more street smart over there, just some of the experienced characters that they had, Graham Rowntree, Julian White, obviously 'Cockers' (Richard Cockerill) was forwards coach and he's still there, Martin Corry.

"These guys just had a wealth of experience -- guys like Ben Kay, Louis Deacon -- and it's hard not to learn from those players.

"Some days they might go out and say 'we're doing 50 scrums today.' So that mentality was there when I was there. I can't say what's there now, but it's old school in many ways. There's a massive emphasis on the basics and sometimes when you have the basics right and you're winning collisions, rugby can be quite an easy game."

Cockerill played hooker at Leicester for many years forming the renowned ABC front-row (the Tigers used to wear letters instead of numbers on their jerseys) with Rowntree and Darren Garforth and Cullen believes the Leicester coach is overseeing a team in his image -- direct and confrontational.

"He's your classic pit bull," said Cullen. "He was always pretty irritating to play against, and in his coaching style he's pretty prone to mood swings. As a forwards coach it was very much dependent on what we were like at the weekend.

"He actually pays real great attention to detail, spends a lot of time working with players individually, just on the smallest details from every game. He's a good, tough, hard character, 'Cockers.' There's a certain Leicester way of wanting to be a tough, physically imposing type of player and that's what he probably instils the most," added Cullen.

"They're like a bit of a juggernaut, really, they're very hard once they get going, so it's important that we don't give them momentum and allow Leicester in. You give them any sort of a sniff of opportunity, they'll really assert themselves."

  • FOUR clubs are celebrating a cash boost after being awarded support packages worth €5,000 by Ulster Bank RugbyForce. The winning clubs, who all intend to improve their facilities, are Connacht's Ballina RFC, Leinster's Wexford Wanderers, Limerick and Munster's Thomond and Ulster club Ballymoney.

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