Monday 19 August 2019

Cullen backs cubs to keep Blues top

Leinster supremo hails his fellow coaches as the dominant province claims a 10th trophy in 12 seasons with gritty Celtic Park success

Blue brothers: Leinster’s players celebrate the retention of their PRO14 title in Glasgow. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Blue brothers: Leinster’s players celebrate the retention of their PRO14 title in Glasgow. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Tomorrow Leo Cullen will allow himself to go down memory lane for a while as he and the team that won the 2009 Heineken Cup assemble for their 10-year anniversary celebrations.

As he looks around the room he'll see a smattering of the players he now coaches in Johnny Sexton, Devin Toner and Cian Healy, some of his fellow coaches and a couple of pundits who now critique his team from the security of the studio.

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Leinster head coach Leo Cullen celebrates his latest triumph. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen celebrates his latest triumph. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It won't be long before his mind switches back to the future. You don't succeed in the way Cullen and Leinster do by indulging in nostalgia.

A decade ago the boys in blue were synonymous with underachievement and their first European title was almost a romantic breakthrough.

On Saturday they were booed by a frustrated Glasgow Warriors fan base who emptied Celtic Park before Seán O'Brien lifted the PRO14 trophy.

The Scots were annoyed at the refereeing and their own team's failings, but it was also a sign of how sick opponents are of a team who have hoovered up 10 titles in 12 seasons since the 2008 Celtic League win. They have now won six editions of this tournament.

Glasgow were the romantic story; the home-town heroes who attracted a record crowd to say farewell to Stuart Hogg, but Leinster said 'not today'.

In winning the title, they have ensured top seeding for next season's Champions Cup draw in July and, while many of the players have a major challenge on their hands to compete in a World Cup year, they will return next season as one of the big hitters.

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Cullen confirmed that the returning Cian Kelleher is the only new addition to the roster for next season, while O'Brien, Jack McGrath, Noel Reid and Mick Kearney depart. Rob Kearney has yet to sign a new deal, but he dropped a big hint that he'll stay on in an interview with TG4 on the pitch after the game.

So the onus will be on the next generation to pick up the slack with the help of a coaching team and a club culture that sets them up to succeed.

Asked about what has made the province so consistently successful, Cullen ran through a selection of the major challenges they are presented with when facing the big spenders from France and England before honing in on Leinster's own virtues.

"We're investing heavily in the young guys, really, you see that with the competition," said Cullen.

"You still need experience, but the work that goes into making sure you identify talent and you put resources into that talent so they can be good... there's also challenges with that.

"We'd a lot of guys who got experience this year, got exposure. We're losing some experience with Seánie moving on, couple of others as well.

"We've young guys coming in, we've got this rotation, or whatever way you want to call it. Everyone's a year older in the cycle, young guys come into the Academy and it's making sure those guys get some quality coaching.

"Stuart (Lancaster) has been amazing for the group in terms of what he delivers for the group as a coach on the field, Felipe (Contepomi) has been a brilliant addition, we're going to lose John (Fogarty), but Robin McBryde comes in next year. A fresh voice, fresh ideas. He's in the hotbed of the World Cup and might have things we can learn from that as a group.

"Hugh Hogan (collision coach) has been a great addition as well, you hear a lot of players talk about the work he does with them individually to make sure guys are as good as they can be.

"That's the big crux for us, I'm not going to be cliched, but we need to give them everything possible so they can deliver.

"Then it's just feeding into the culture part of it, the support and the players, what it represents for them to play on the weekend, that they understand what their piece in the bigger jigsaw is.

"You've guys that are highly motivated playing for the team, if you've guys going through the motions it's not going to be a nice team to support. It's important we're always guarding against that, so the competition piece is important."

The realistic chance of silverware helps.

Cullen doesn't define his success by the flow of trophies, but the retention of the PRO14 is an endorsement of all the decisions that he and his team have made.

Not that he'll forget the disappointment of St James' Park in a hurry.

"It's still an amazing achievement to get to two finals. Now that we're here, we want to win them," he said.

"We were distraught, I don't know what the word to describe it is, after losing that game, for so many different reasons. It was almost like you need to get out of that hangover, but you know it's going to be there for us for a long time.

"The following day, I lost a European final before with Leicester, and I walked into my local park and who did I meet only Eoin Reddan, who was playing for Wasps that day.

"I was like, 'oh brilliant, seeing you reminds me of the last time we lost a European final!'

"Some of the things I remember in the preparation of that week, that's the thing - we need to make sure we're doing everything in our power so you look back on it... Johnny (Sexton) mentioned regrets, those regrets are there forever.

"But, as he also said, we've been to four finals in the last two years and winning three has a nicer ring to it than two wins."

Four years ago Cullen was facing into his first season as head coach having taken over from Matt O'Connor.

He did so with a young, inexperienced coaching ticket and on the back of another Irish World Cup quarter-final exit his team endured their worst European campaign and were denied the PRO14 title by Connacht.

The lessons of that season are there to be learnt. Europe kicks off two weeks after the final in Yokohama and however Ireland go there'll be a hangover to deal with.

A dip would be a natural part of the cycle, but, while he'll enjoy his reunion, Cullen will soon put all of his efforts into sustaining the success and keeping the blue dynasty at the top of the European game.

You wouldn't bet against a three-in-a-row in Cardiff next year.

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