Friday 24 January 2020

New beginnings as Leinster and Munster plot their way to the top

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

In Leo Cullen and Gregor Townsend's eyes, at least eight teams are capable of winning the Pro12 this season, and as outlandish as that may seem, having won the trophy in the past, both men know what it takes to go all the way.

Connacht's stunning triumph last season ripped up the script and breathed life back into a competition that had at times in the past felt a bit stagnated.

Ulster have signalled their intent by luring former All Black Charles Piutau and Springbok Marcell Coetzee to Belfast, and with Les Kiss having had first pre-season in charge, expectations are greater than they have been in recent years.

Rassie Erasmus has arrived in Limerick and brought with him highly regarded defence coach Jacques Nienaber, and the talk from the Munster camp about the South African pair's immediate impact has been resoundingly positive.

Their philosophy will however take time to implement, and Cullen (right) can certainly relate to that after a mixed first season in charge of his home province.

A disastrous European campaign was somewhat softened by finishing top of the Pro12 table, but a final defeat to Connacht leaves a sour taste.

"I look back at all games I've lost over the years," Cullen admits.

"As a player I was the same. Some of them are still painful. We're disappointed but it's a different group of players now, so it starts all over again."

New beginnings indeed and for all of Erasmus' experience, coaching outside South Africa is a whole new ball game.

The director of rugby has made it abundantly clear that his intention is not to transform Munster into a replica Boks outfit but rather build on the strengths that made them such a force.

"If you look at Munster teams through the past that were successful, we can't clone those 15 or 23 guys," Erasmus said.

"You can't do that. You can't take a 21-year-old guy and say you must have a 30-year-old way of thinking.

"I'm sorry for quoting this but I think it was Einstein that said, 'if you do the same thing over and over and you expect a different result, that's insanity'.

"I think we are taking those great things from the past and saying that the game has also moved on. We can't win the same as 2006 or 2008 because it's different people, different personalities.

"It's a new era. The game has changed from last year, since I played, since the great Munster teams played. Every year it evolves and we want to be the cutting edge when it comes to that."

For so many years, it was Leinster who were the innovators but Pat Lam has changed that brilliantly at Connacht.

Too often last season, it was Leinster's steely defence that got them out of trouble, and the loss of defence coach Kurt McQuilkin cannot be understated.

The Kiwi had a massive impact on the province, which was seen both in performances on the pitch and behind the scenes, by the queue of players who wanted to sign up for one-on-one training sessions with him.

World Cup demands tested Leinster's strength in depth. Having used 56 players in their 24 Pro12 games, Cullen doesn't envisage those numbers being reached again.

However, those Academy players who were called upon are a year ahead in their development, while Cullen also has his first year as a head coach under his belt.

"I probably have a better understanding of what's involved," Cullen said.

"I'm not sure if that gives you more confidence. I have that level of being nervously excited every day about doing the job, so it does give me that sense of 'This is a big deal'. I learned a hell of a lot last year; you couldn't but learn in the season it was."

The biggest challenge that Cullen now faces is to prove that he has learned from last season's shortcomings.

Erasmus may well encounter similar problems in his first season in a Pro12 that promises to be more competitive than ever but the fact remains that Leinster and Munster supporters expect.

The time for talking is almost over.

Irish Independent

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