Sport Rugby

Monday 11 December 2017

Cullen soothed by clear Blues vision

Leinster's Leo Cullen in action during training this week
Leinster's Leo Cullen in action during training this week
Leinster's Leo Cullen with head coach Matt O'Connor
David Kelly

David Kelly

If Matt O'Connor thought he was dealt a difficult hand when he fetched up in Leinster, passing Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa in the hallway while Brian O'Driscoll was beginning to clear his locker, spare a thought for Leo Cullen.

The three-time Heineken Cup-winning captain takes over from forwards coach Jono Gibbes as chief lieutenant of the grunts next term, but may do so without his two most influential soldiers -- Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

With the French multiplying the moolah they are gobbling up from TV rights -- another €155m dropped in the kitty this week -- Sexton already snapped up and their leading sides storming the Heineken Cup, there is a sense of dread within the sport at the potential pan-European domination of the Top 14 clubs.

All Cullen can manfully offer is the famous line from Dad's Army's Lance-Corporal Jack Jones -- "Don't panic!"

REWARDS

If we believe Leinster's party line -- amidst all the smoke and mirrors, it's difficult to know who to believe -- both players want to stay in Ireland, regardless of the hefty financial rewards on offer in France.

"People will always follow the money," admits Cullen. "That is the nature of it, but we would like to think here in the provinces there is a very attractive environment for players to become the very best they can become.

"We would hope that there is still a very strong value on that and on the collective will of wanting to represent your home province.

"We have had a sprinkling of guys from outside who add a bit as well and there is a dangerous flood of guys going to France, but we have only lost one player so far, so I don't think it is panic stations just yet."

Nevertheless, if the financial lure becomes the primary motivating force -- and the elaborate delay suggests that it is all about the money -- Cullen could face into next season without his twin talismen.

"Listen, they are two of the best players in Europe -- in the world," he concedes. "Jamie has been incredibly consistent and Seanie is obviously a pretty phenomenal talent. They don't come around very often, so we want to keep them.

"I see them as two of the biggest leaders in the team and two of our best players over the last seven or eight years. I can't speak highly enough of the two of them."

Cullen left Leinster when its culture was laughably ill-disciplined; the transformation he has since wrought would, it is hoped, sustain the province even if the pair left.

"Yeah, I think so," he says. "Those younger guys drive it more so these days.

"We've been pretty lucky that there has been a nice spread of ages.

"You see some of the young guys coming through now, like Dave Kearney and Jordi Murphy, who has come through in the last number of months. There's constantly new guys, younger guys, coming through.

"You see the B&I team are on a very good run as well. You would hope that there are always guys coming through, but it's important that we hold on to our experienced players, that we don't suddenly have lots of young guys coming through with less experience.

"It's about having that balance and that's just the nature of the provincial system.

"If you look at other provincial systems in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, they've tended to lose some of their more experienced players, so they have younger squads.

"It's a bit different in the northern hemisphere, because you're coming up against pretty experienced teams in Europe and, in particular, in England and France. You need a little bit more experience."

Cullen's own professional transition -- it is typical of Irish rugby that his appointment hasn't been officially confirmed yet -- has been put on hold as he attempts to steer Leinster towards maintaining the winning culture they hope will persuade their stars to stay in Ireland.

"I'm just concentrating on finishing the way I'd like to finish and that's with Leinster being successful at the end of the season and trying to win as many games as possible," he says.

"We're very much week-to-week and it's all about winning the next game. I'm only in it for another short period. Four or five months, whatever it's going to be.

"I just want to savour every occasion I get to play because I know it will be pretty weird not doing it next year.

"The coaching thing is something I'm looking forward but almost something that still feels in the distance.

"I'll have enough time at the end of the season and in the pre-season to get my bearings there with that."

They may inevitably be on the road in a Heineken Cup quarter-final, but, after last year's hiatus, coupled with that incredible win in Castres last weekend, Cullen is not too perturbed.

"We have performed pretty well, particularly in Europe," says Cullen, whose side need just one point to make the last eight.

"If you looked at the group after the draw there was Castres, Northampton and Ospreys away. They are three teams with very strong records and we have managed to get wins in all three places so it does give us confidence going forward.

"This week against Ospreys, we just need to focus, go out and try to get the win. That's enough to get us into the quarters and that's where we want to be. We have won three away games in Europe already, so even if we have to go on the road it's not the end of the world."

An attitude, you feel, that Leinster have also begun to apply to O'Brien and Heaslip.

Irish Independent

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