'Toughest pool' will focus Cullen's mind
These are exciting if surreal times for Leo Cullen.
He stood around a corporate lounge at the Stoop yesterday and in each corner there were coaches he played under. Richard Cockerill on one side of the room, Mike Ford in another with Mark McCall nearby. There was a sense it has not fully sunk in that Cullen is now one of them; no longer concerned just by his own performance but that of an entire squad.
The club rugby landscape has altered beyond recognition in the six years since he played a pivotal role in guiding Leinster to a first of three European Cups in 2009 and while in the same room his Munster counterpart Anthony Foley pondered the potential of losing Simon Zebo to France, Cullen was in little doubt that the tournament is more difficult to win than ever for Irish teams.
Not solely due the financial clout at Top 14 and Premiership clubs and different selection criteria, though. The former second-row also thinks having to play more games in the Pro12 compared to when Leinster were kings of the continent in 2009 is also working against their favour.
"Clubs are investing a lot more in quality players and over time the nature of the way the game has evolved in Europe and we operate off certain criteria when it comes to squad selection," Cullen said.
"It's very important for us to identify talent at a young age and bring them through the academy system. We grow and develop players. Added to that, we're assigned four overseas players that aren't qualified for Ireland at that moment and time. Other clubs are operating with a different structure. That's why it's harder.
"When we won it for the first time, if you look at the nature of the teams and go back and scan through them. The likes of Toulon weren't in the competition at the time. Racing Metro are investing pretty heavily and have signed in theory the best player in the world. I can name other teams as well. That's just the way it is and we need to adapt and take on the challenge that's there."
Then there is the schedule, with four to six games more in the Pro12 now than in 2009.
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"I don't think anybody accepted it was going to be like that year after year," Cullen said when asked if the provinces appreciated their era of success enough while it was happening. If you look at the league then, they could focus much more on Europe because they didn't have the extra competition.
"Even when Leinster won Magners League in 2008 there were four less games to manage players. There were no play-offs then so that was potentially two more - that's six weekends, that's a lot in the course of a season to manage a squad."
The 37-year-old believes it means having to think outside the box. He has not been aided by the daunting prospect of a pool of champions that not only contains Toulon, looking to make it four in a row, but former winners Bath and Wasps too. Even in the embryonic stages of his coaching career is he feeling some pressure?
"I feel it every day because I want to make sure we're moving in the right direction. I don't know if I'd call it a job but I take my role really seriously and I understand there are so many stakeholders with a strong interest in the team.
"I hope I can get a little better. I can't make any promises but it's exciting. We're in the toughest pool - we're all winners and I don't think that's happened before."
Disappointment for those involved aside, Cullen was pleased to welcome his World Cup players back a fortnight early.
Especially because of the challenges associated with introducing new plays to them after a mentally exhausting 12 weeks on international duty.
"It's been a challenge," he adds. "We were working off a scenario where we wouldn't get the players back until after this week. The scenario we're in has been pushed forward two weeks, it's probably an easier scenario than we thought it would be.
"It's still tricky trying to integrate guys coming in to learn a completely new language but we were working off a contingency that they were only going to arrive next week. We see it as a bit of a bonus that some guys got to play against Treviso and some guys will get to play against Scarlets. We try to look at the positives rather than the challenges that we face."
The Leinster captain Isa Nacewa thinks the return of big names has been a major positive and said there was evidence of a higher intensity game against Treviso with Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton back in midfield.
"We had a really young squad during the World Cup but it brought a different level of energy and buzz around the place. There was a genuine competition when the guys were away, a fight for places.
"Throw 19 more players in the mix and the standard and level goes up a good few notches. They obviously came back in different shapes and forms mentally and physically after the World Cup."