Monday 19 August 2019

Jim Glennon: Leinster destined to be a culture club with Cullen and co running the show

4 November 2015; Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. 2015/16 European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup Launch. The Stoop, Twickenham, England. Picture credit: Matt Impey / SPORTSFILE
4 November 2015; Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. 2015/16 European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup Launch. The Stoop, Twickenham, England. Picture credit: Matt Impey / SPORTSFILE

Jim Glennon

There's a sense of deja vu about for Leinster - Wasps at the RDS for their European opener for a second year in succession.

Leinster won last year's first-round meeting 25-20 but the manner of the win was far from convincing. The team didn't fire that afternoon, something to which supporters became accustomed over the course of the season.

For many, Matt O'Connor may already be a distant memory but some feel that he was hard done by in being cast aside after a single season, especially as he was only an unsuccessful drop-goal attempt away from a European final. The prevailing view remains however, that the Australian failed the fundamental challenge of all coaches, whatever the sport - the extraction of the maximum from the resources available. That task now falls to a new coaching team led by Leo Cullen, assisted by former players Girvan Dempsey, Kurt McQuilkin and John Fogarty.

Little can be read into the World Cup-dominated opening rounds of the Pro12 but while Leinster haven't set the world alight, there have been many positives. A comprehensive beating in Parc y Scarlets in round four was the low point, but three wins on the bounce since, including one over champions Glasgow and revenge at home to Scarlets, have positioned them nicely ahead of the first two European rounds, and a particularly tough spell until year's end.

Wasps today, Bath away, Ulster at home, Glasgow away, Toulon home and away and hosting Munster, on consecutive weeks, presents a massive challenge and if we haven't been able to garner much from what we've seen already, the next seven weeks will rectify that.

Initially named as interim head-coach, Leo Cullen's permanent appointment didn't surprise me, having worked closely with him during the early stages of his career as an underage international and a fledgling provincial player.

From the first time I saw him at number eight in a schools' junior cup game at Donnybrook, he always impressed me as an astute and intelligent player, quickly developing outstanding leadership qualities to captain Ireland to fourth place in the Under-19 World Cup in Argentina in 1997, with fellow future senior internationals Simon Best, Bob Casey, Geordan Murphy, Mick O'Driscoll and David Quinlan as team-mates.

While coaches of the quality of Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt have transformed Leinster into one of the premier teams in northern hemisphere rugby, we must go back to the mid-1990s to find the last 'local' man to coach the side. The province, since the recruitment of Cheika in 2005, has developed a reputation as an excellent environment for talented, young coaches and the hope is that Cullen will be another in this vein. The composition of his support team is encouraging too - Girvan Dempsey, Kurt McQuilkin, Guy Easterby and John Fogarty comprise a cadre of former Leinster players shaping the team's direction.

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A key factor in Leinster's success over the last decade has been the establishment and development, by those outstanding coaches in partnership with some equally outstanding players, of a culture - a way Leinster perform on and off the field; such a continuum of players into management is a welcome enhancement of that culture.

Having been almost continuously present, in various roles and in different times, in the Leinster dressing room from 1975 until 1998, it's evident to me, notwithstanding last season's failings, that there is now an established Leinster way - difficult to define maybe, and comprising a lot more than aesthetically pleasing back play or simply throwing the ball around at every opportunity. Nor is it to be implemented at all costs - particular circumstances will always demand a particular approach but the preferred option, circumstances permitting - the innate pragmatism of the new coach will see to that.

Conspicuous by its absence last season, we've already had glimpses of its re-appearance - some good spells of positive, expressive, skilful rugby, with a mutual trust among players and management. Their confidence will have been boosted too by what was evident at the World Cup; ball-players and attackers win games.

Many, including O'Connor apparently, felt that he got a raw deal from Leinster Rugby, their supporters and some local media. But that's in the past and there's already evidence of a more positive environment, and familiar faces and a clarity of purpose with which all can readily connect.

In the new European order, which is stacked against the Irish franchises more than ever, the link between a local coaching team, a predominantly local playing squad, and their support-base is becoming more important too.

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