Reluctant coach Leo Cullen savours Leinster's moment of glory
All-conquering Cullen hails his unbeaten stars after PRO14 glory cements 'remarkable' double season
Every day as he drives to UCD, Leo Cullen questions whether this coaching lark is really for him.
He tumbled into the Leinster top job a year after retiring and endured a horrible first year in charge, yet three years on he can survey the scene from the top of the European game, and still he is reluctant to get carried away.
Even when he was leading Leinster through their halcyon period of European dominance as captain, Cullen couldn't do the double but on Saturday he watched with satisfaction from the sound-proof box at the Aviva Stadium as his team routed Scarlets to take the title.
Nowhere has the Leinster dominance been as apparent as their two games against the 2017 winners of the Guinness PRO14, who won't want to visit Dublin again for a while. The Blues lost their captain and cause, Isa Nacewa, after 19 minutes but carried on regardless.
Cullen points out that a collection of his players - James Ryan, Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw - have not lost a game all season as they head off to Australia on the final journey of a long and unforgettable campaign.
Their coach has already begun looking at pre-season, at filling the void left by Nacewa's retirement. Conversations continue to rumble about Joey Carbery, who showed his skill once again on Saturday and is considering a move to Munster to further his prospects. Cullen needs an assistant to replace Girvan Dempsey and it would be silly to rule out Nacewa moving upstairs.
No two seasons are the same and Cullen is all too aware of the fickleness of the job.
"I still ask myself the question every day as I come in," he confided as he reflected on the campaign.
International Rugby Newsletter
"It does take its toll, it's part and parcel of it. The scrutiny is huge; of the other Irish (provincial) coaches this year; I'm the only one left in situ, three have left for different reasons.
"That's just part of the job spec. For every team going well, there's another not going as well. When one team is going well, another coach comes under pressure for his job.
"Not everyone can win. I feel for some of the other coaches who are out there, talking to them after their departures. It's not a straightforward job, we'll enjoy today while we can."
The job came early for Cullen, who paid tribute to Matt O'Connor, the man he replaced, for handing him the opportunity to run the forwards when he hung up his boots in 2014. Within a year, he was the main man after the Australian was fired.
"I saw a lot of coaches and didn't fancy what they were doing," he explained of his reluctance. "Because it looks like it's quite draining on your mind, is the best way to describe it. I thought there'd be other things I could do. I'm very grateful to Matt, he let me step in when I stopped playing. And taking over from him after that was a reasonably turbulent time.
"So to see the work going in behind the scenes to get the club to this point, it probably makes it all a bit better in many ways, it hasn't been straightforward.
"But I feel very lucky, there's a huge amount of support behind the scenes, so much goes into it.
"The club are a little bit brave as well to give it to me in the first place. You feel quite privileged to be able to do it, it's probably earlier than I ever thought it would happen."
It is remarkable to think that, as a player, Cullen once grew so frustrated with underachievement at Leinster that he headed abroad in search of trophies; a landscape that the likes of Ryan and Dan Leavy would struggle to comprehend.
Eleven years after he returned, he has been part of four European Cups, four PRO14 titles and a Challenge Cup and is now the head coach of the best team in Europe.
Central to it all has been Sexton, who himself left and came back and, during Cullen's first season in charge, very publicly questioned the direction the club was going.
He was superb on Saturday and according to his coach he's played a big role in turning things around.
"You see what he does on the field, big moments in the game on half-time, kicking those sideline conversions. It's just another nail into the Scarlets and another blow for them, so they know they have a bigger mountain to climb," the coach said.
"There's also the bits behind the scenes, how he drives standards every day. That's not just the players, how he drives the standard of the coaches.
"There was a lot of reflection, particularly the year we had a poor year in Europe. We had a lot of conversations behind the scenes about trying to make the place better and what we needed to do. We went on to lose that Pro12 final against Connacht in Edinburgh and the two semi-finals last season.
"A lot of these guys, they have gone through the season unbeaten. That achievement is pretty spectacular, it's not like they're playing low-level games. That's after the Lions, so it's a pretty remarkable season.
"We wish them the best for the (Ireland) tour now and they have a chance to go and do something really special over there. It just rolls on, that's the challenge for those guys and that's why we try to manage them as well as possible. That's why we try to build depth and play guys."
At the end of it all, Leinster broke with their tradition of sharing the heavy lifting and gave Nacewa the stage to raise the PRO14 trophy as his final act in blue.
"That's the highlight of my season," Cullen said. "What a sign-off for him. He lasted less than 20 minutes but he was going to play regardless, whatever physical state he was in."
The captain departs, but after an unforgettable season the Leinster show will carry on for a while yet with their reluctant coach at the helm.