Cullen's spirit key to sinking Toulouse
IT was a Musgrave Park night the locals would describe as "manky" -- swirling wind, driving rain and the type of cold that forms ice on the fringes of laptop screens.
Friday, November 30, 2007, did not get a lot of airplay when the feeding frenzy began before the recent Good Friday showdown between Munster and Leinster, nor indeed did it ahead of last year's Heineken Cup, Croke Park semi-final between the same combatants.
However, when charting the development of Leinster from talented underachievers to their status as one of the most psychologically secure teams in Europe -- with the trophy to prove it -- that manky Magners League night in Cork stands tall.
Leinster had not won at Musgrave Park for more than 20 years and -- given their established reputation as a dry-ground, running team -- a comfortable home victory was predicted, particularly as Munster fielded a pack including the names of Horan, Hayes, Flannery, O'Callaghan, Leamy and Wallace.
But it was the Leinster grapplers who proved more effective as Michael Cheika's men secured a seminal 10-3 victory. And chief among them was second-row Leo Cullen, at the heart of every collision up front, grabbing team-mates to tighten up mauls, barking orders at fringe defenders and generally revelling in the old-style rugby combat in what was soon to become the ELV era.
Not far behind him was flanker Shane Jennings, who had followed Cullen to Leicester two years previously and returned with him again on the urgings of Cheika. The Australian's time with Leinster has been characterised by intelligent calls and bringing Cullen and Jennings back from a successful Tigers stint is one of his smartest. That duo brought a steel and resolve to the Leinster pack which would help develop the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy into quality international forwards.
Leinster won the Magners League under Brian O'Driscoll that season -- a significant step on the path to European fulfilment -- and when O'Driscoll was given the task of leading Ireland out of their Grand Slam wilderness by new coach Declan Kidney, Cheika asked Cullen to take over as Leinster captain.
Another intelligent call. The Wicklow man, whose leadership qualities had been previously been recognised by Leicester, became a figure of focused authority which his team-mates could rally around as Leinster marched to their first Heineken Cup title, while reducing the burden on O'Driscoll shoulders helped the centre to replicate his superb international form for his province.
It was no coincidence that Leinster's pre-Christmas wobble last season came when Cullen was out injured and his return steadied the vessel in time for their title push. Cullen's influence was recognised by Kidney and he started the first two games of this season's Six Nations in Donncha O'Callaghan's absence. Paul O'Connell and O'Callaghan are a proven, quality pairing but Cullen is pushing both second-rows all the time and is a key figure as Kidney builds towards the World Cup next year.
For now, extending Leinster's season to the Heineken Cup and Magners League finals at the end of May is Cullen's priority. Having scraped through the epic quarter-final with a supremely talented Clermont Auvergne outfit (on a night which amply demonstrated the power of psychological surety in high-intensity knock-out situations), Leinster are gearing up for a daunting last-four clash in Toulouse and their captain is typically pragmatic on the issue.
"Clermont came at us pretty strong in the first 20 minutes and we were hanging in there," the 32-year-old reflected. "We weren't quite at the level required. The fundamentals of our defence were pretty poor and it leads to holes opening up and ill-discipline.
"We were scrambling that bit more and so more inclined to give away penalties and do silly things. We weren't in control and they have very good players. We had a bright 10-minute period in the first half that saved the game for us, but take that out of the game and we were very much second place.
"The confidence is there, we just need to get back, concentrate on ourselves and start playing well."
Cullen knows Toulouse from four previous Heineken Cup meetings, all of which went with the home sides in the 2001/02 and 2007/08 seasons, and the mesmerising nature of last weekend's last-eight victory over Stade Francais left no-one at Leinster in any doubt as to how threatening Guy Noves' side are again this season.
"They looked pretty impressive," said Cullen. "Once you allow them to get into the off-load game, they try to play with width and pace. When they are playing like that they're very, very dangerous.
"In the first half, Stade got into them and made life difficult. They turned them over at the breakdown quite a bit but as Stade got tired a bit in the second half, Toulouse emptied the bench. The quality of players they have in their squad really told.
"As the game wore on they got more and more dangerous."
That danger must be met head on. It will be far from manky at the Stade Municipal in Toulouse on May 1, when these teams meet again but, if Leinster are to make their second final in succession, they will need to reawaken that Musgrave Park spirit from two and a half years ago.
With Cullen at the helm, it will not be for the want of trying.