Tuesday 17 September 2019

McCullen reflects on his career less ordinary - 'I just did everything in my power to make the best of myself'

 

Aidan McCullen: ‘Way better players than me didn’t make it’. Picture credit: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Aidan McCullen: ‘Way better players than me didn’t make it’. Picture credit: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

THE woman approached tentatively for the man was distracted by the sights and sounds that surrounded him.

"Aidan?" she asked hopefully. "C'est tu? Aidan McCullen." "Oui Madame."

"Resté une moment s'il vous plait."

He thought nothing of it, as all around him the acrid pink smoke spattered the heaving Stade Ernest Wallon ahead of October's Champions Cup tie against Leinster.

A short while later, she returned, breathless, thrusting a battered scrapbook into his hand. Within its pages, a collection of cuttings and photos from McCullen's season with Toulouse in 2005.

Now 42, as he turned the book's dog-eared pages, it was as if he was, so briefly, seeing how his life had turned full circle, all the roads less travelled, through potholes and down culs de sac, extracting every drop from his being.

"It had always been my ambition to play for Leinster, play for Toulouse, and play for Ireland." And he did it all, too. "Not bad for a fella who was always the last pick in school!"

Looking back at it all now, there is a sense that McCullen was often winging it but, at the same time, also definitively mapping out a career progression.

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"I knew what I wanted to do and if it didn't happen, I was going to do something else. But I was willing to do anything to make it."

Before there was ever Leinster or Ireland or Toulouse, there was Dax. Professional rugby in 1998 was like the Wild West; you grabbed what you could, whatever way you could.

An age-grade international through to U-21 level, it was while doing French at university that a colleague recommended he read the sports bible, 'L'équipe', to combine study with pleasure.

One day he scanned a headline. "Dax en crise!" A lightbulb moment. "I was thinking - opportunity!"

Seventeen players had left the top-flight French club - led by Olivier Magne. Fabien Pelous. Raphael Ibanez - now destined for relegation.

McCullen rang Donal Spring, a fellow back-row from Lansdowne and one-time Irish international who had once spent a season with the club.

Next thing he was in Cologne on Erasmus, studying German and preparing to be the best young professional Dax had ever seen.

"I trained twice a day, six days a week. I ate ten meals a day. I basically transformed my size and strength so that when I joined, was in far superior shape than anyone else."

He was the youngest forward in the league and Dax ended up reaching the quarter-finals.

"Look, I wasn't that talented at sport so I had to work hard."

While there, he saw Toulouse. It was love at first sight.

"It was rugby on a level I'd never seen before. I wanted to be part of it."

He would, sooner than he thought. But first he had other boxes to tick. He returned to Lansdowne and was player of the season when they finished runners-up in the AIL to St Mary's.

Three provinces offered him contracts but not the one he coveted. He had decided to start a business post-grad when Matt Williams gave him a call.

"I played hard ball because in college we were being told what contracts were available in all the American firms. I ended up getting more than a lot of the other guys."

Leinster won the Celtic League in 2001. An Irish cap against Samoa followed, four tries in six Heineken Cup pool games as Leinster reached a losing European semi-final to Perpignan. Unwittingly, Toulouse were monitoring him even then. But Leinster were shambolic in those days.

He linked up with the agent who had handled Trevor Brennan's Toulouse switch but ended up doing a lot of the work himself.

"I was ringing him every day but I has this image of a guy sitting with his mates playing video games and just firing darts at a map. Every day he was coming up with a different club."

And so McCullen rang a journalist in France and said that both Clermont and Toulouse were looking for him. Another headline. "McCullen entre Clermont et Toulouse!"

A day later, he was being shown around Clermont. "It just felt cold, clinical."

A day later, Toulouse. Club legend Jean-Michel Giraud met him at that airport. "This will be your car when you sign. Would you like some dinner in our Michelin star restaurant?" He signed the deal on the back of a napkin two days later.

"My agent mentioned a figure, they mentioned a figure and I just said, 'Lads, I would pay the difference myself just to play here'."

McCullen would displace Isitola Maka and Yannick Nyanga for the early part of the season before injuries once more scuppered his progress but the love affair was consummated.

London was also on his radar so he went to London Irish and finished his playing days there but he had always been planning the afterlife.

He joined Denis O'Brien's Communicorp and quickly identified that digital marketing was the coming trend; he worked without pay for three months. He stayed for ten years.

"I didn't know what I was doing but knew I could work harder than anyone else." Now he hosts an innovation show on RTé and works with Flow Group, a company which seeks to transform business culture.

Lessons from life and rugby and business all flowing into one.

"The skills rugby gave me are so essential but the fact that I didn't make it, although it gnawed at my ego for a while but it's way easier to move on than staying connected.

"I've no regrets. Adversity is good for you. It's given me an awesome life. The one thing is you don't realise how much time you have. I could have been a classical pianist!

"But I know I did everything in my power to make the best of myself. Way better players than me didn't make it. I did well!"

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