Sunday 22 April 2018

Cullen unfazed by high level of expectations

Leo Cullen is ‘really looking forward’ to the challenge of being Leinster head coach
Leo Cullen is ‘really looking forward’ to the challenge of being Leinster head coach
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The trophies trip off Leo Cullen's tongue effortlessly and why wouldn't they? He lifted most of them.

If Matt O'Connor sometimes appeared uncomfortable with Leinster's past successes, particularly the achievements of Joe Schmidt, his replacement won't have that problem.

No matter what happens during his time in charge, Cullen will always be the man who lifted three Heineken Cups in four years as well as a host of other titles.

Whether the popular captain can sustain his ratings as coach is one of the challenges awaiting him as he takes on the top job. Leading the team on to the field is a very different beast than making the hard calls from the coaching booth and preparing the charges for battle.

Cullen gave his first press conference at Leinster's UCD base yesterday, with his backroom staff occupying the front two rows in a show of support.

He has the backing of the squad as Johnny Sexton's passionate testimony showed, but perhaps the biggest obstacle to his success in this new role is how he lives up to the heightened expectations at the RDS.

O'Connor came under fire for his style of play during a first season that saw him deliver the Pro12 title, while things turned sour in year two as taking Toulon to extra-time in a Champions Cup semi-final couldn't mask a sub-standard league campaign.

The discontent was palpable in Ballsbridge and led to Brian O'Driscoll to wonder aloud as to whether the fans had become "a little bit spoilt" by the success.

The bad feeling seeped into the committee room and the Leinster Professional Game Board (PGB) decided to take action despite having failed to sound out a replacement.

Instead, forwards coach Cullen got the nod after a protracted summer of uncertainty and now faces a difficult first season in charge as he faces weeks without his top players who are in World Cup-mode and this year's Champions Cup pool of death.

Yesterday, as if to emphasise the point, Toulon confirmed that their round three game would take place at their bear-pit Stade Felix Mayol. That's after Leinster face Wasps and Bath with their frontliners barely back in harness.

It will be difficult and the transition may take time, but Cullen was not about to temper expectations when given the opportunity.

"We want to be ambitious. And if we're an ambitious club we want fans that come out and support an ambitious club," he said. "If you look back at the recent history with Leinster. In 2008 they win the Magners League, in 2009 win a European trophy, 2010 where we lose in the semi-final of Europe and lose in the final of the Pro12, 2011 win in Europe again, lose in the final of the Pro12, 2012 same again, win in Europe, lose in the final of the Pro12, 2013, win the Amlin trophy and winning the Pro12, 2014 win the Pro12.

"Last year, we didn't win silverware so there's going to be questions asked about that. The landscape is changing in Europe, it is getting harder and harder. I don't want to spout clichés, but that is an actual reality.

"The resources that other clubs are putting into that competition are greater and greater, that weren't there five or six years ago. That's just the reality.

"Are we still ambitious? Of course we are. We want to be as ambitious as we possibly can, and we think we have a very, very strong playing group, that we're able to challenge on two fronts all the time. But again, that's the challenge."

The word "challenge" crept up again and again during yesterday's press conference, but the mild-mannered and thoughtful Cullen never appeared daunted by the task at hand.

Conceding that the job had come to him earlier than he'd envisaged, he simply couldn't turn it down.

There may have been doubts, but those are long gone.

"I have a lot of faith in the people around me, a lot of faith in people in Leinster, it is a big part of what I have done," he said.

"It is occupies a lot of thoughts every day of my life, it has played a big part in my life so I am really looking forward to it.

"I am not going to dwell too much on how I came in to be doing it. Of course I went through that process particularly with my family. I understand that affects them as well and that is probably my biggest consideration taking on the role."

If fan expectation is one challenge to be managed, dealing with David Nucifora, Joe Schmidt and the IRFU is another for Cullen. By the end of O'Connor's tenure, the relationship had soured.

"I understand the dynamic," Cullen said. "It is a massive part of the remit of a provincial coach is to ensure there is a steady supply of Irish talent coming through the system."

His existing relationship with Schmidt should help - he revealed they are in regular contact - while his experience of being on both sides of the house should stand to him too.

The task at hand is not an easy one, but Cullen doesn't seem daunted as he hopes his leadership qualities and organisational abilities, combined with the titbits he's learned from the coaches he's worked under, can help him restore Leinster's glory days.

Irish Independent

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