My Health Experience: ‘There is a real science to our performance’
The captain of the Leinster squad started playing rugby when he was eight and has never looked back
Leinster captain Leo Cullen says he enjoys the games more than the training. Photograph: Donall Farmer/INPHO
I started playing rugby when I was about eight. I just took to it straight away. I remember my first game very clearly. It was over in St Mary’s in Rathmines. I played on the wing and I scored a try.
When I was 10, I got to play at Landsdowne Road when Ireland played England for the [Dublin] millennium celebrations. We played before the match and that was such a massive thing. It was the first jersey I had with a number on the back. Last year, the lads dug it up – I don’t know where they got it.
They had this picture of me stuck above my place in the dressing room. When I was that age, I would have been average height and looked a bit malnourished if anything – then one summer I just grew about eight inches.
Playing in the Leinster Schools [with Blackrock] was a pretty big deal. We got to play in front of some great crowds. Representing your school was always a big deal.
I left school in 1996 and rugby didn’t really go professional in Ireland until 1997. It was only at that point that you could see there was a potential future in this. Once I finished my degree, I was keen to jump in with two feet and give it as good a shot as I could.
In the early days, training was certainly more haphazard, there wasn’t really a clear idea of what a good amount of training was. Sometimes we were just training for the sake of training. Now the season is really planned.
There is a real science to our performance. We have this saying, our body is our business, and it’s important that we know exactly what’s going on.
You can see it in guys’ body shapes from maybe 10 years ago to what they are today. Guys are leaner; they are carrying a lot more muscle mass. They are a lot more powerful and probably a bit bigger.
You can see it with the younger guys coming through. When kids are put through these programmes at a younger age, they can get massive gains.
We’re very lucky in Leinster that we get very well taken care of. We have a bunch of tests that we do every morning – everything from the flexibility of different joints, our weight, how we’ve slept, how we’ve been feeling, what the training load has been like.
We’d register every single training session in terms of what exertion we’ve used.
More daily tests measure the flexibility of certain joints like our ankles and our sitting reach – if those register badly or if we’ve slept badly, we could be pulled from training because they need us to be in the best possible shape come match day.
During the season, we’ll have tests to measure things like our strength, our power and our endurance. We get a Dexa scan as well to measure our bone density, our body fat, our muscle mass – the whole array really.
Coming back for pre-season in July, you see some of the younger guys coming in from school. They’ll be in the gym and they’ll be getting videoed and screened about how their body moves and what their weakness are. It’s obviously a very tough environment for them to come into and be literally stripped bare.
I think it’s definitely tougher now than when I was leaving school. There is a career there now.
There are so many good young kids coming through who are very, very dedicated so it’s probably tougher to break into for sure.
We have a new nutritionist; he works with the Dublin footballers as well. He has a Facebook page with recipes and the guys can post up what they’ve cooked so there’s that real sharing of information.
In the early days, it was big bowls of pasta and lots of carbohydrates but now we try to each as much green and have as much colour as we can in our diet. He’s really pushing us away from processed food.
In a sport with a lot of collisions, there’s a lot of damage so we need muscle repair so we eat a lot of protein. But again, it’s trying to eat lean protein, and fish is a better source for us. I love meat and I like roasting vegetables in coconut oil.
Is the sport more dangerous now? I don’t think so, no. I think the game is a lot faster but obviously in collision-based sports there are always times where players are going to get injured and I think everyone fully understands that.
I’m injured at the moment. I had a little bit of a niggle just below my Achilles. It was decided that the best thing would be just to have a procedure done to get it cleared up and hopefully I’ll be back now in a few weeks.
Injury is just part and parcel of it. Now I’ve got the procedure done, I have sort of a timeline in my head so at least I’m able to work towards that.
When it comes to the weekend and the lads are out playing, it can be pretty frustrating watching the games, but that’s wasted energy in many ways. I just need to focus and get back in and try to help the lads out later in the season. I’m captaining the squad. It’s not ideal doing that from the sidelines but I’ll do as much as I can to help the lads prep for the games.
As captain, I suppose you are always trying to gauge the mood of how everyone is in preparation for the games. You’ve always got that in the back of your mind. That’s a lot more difficult to do when you’re injured, but Shane Jennings takes up that role fine.
There is always a balance as to when it is the right time [to retire]. There’s still a part of me that would like to do more with this team and for the moment, I’m really enjoying doing it. I enjoy the games more than I enjoy training, that’s for sure.
Hopefully once I get my heel sorted now and get back training effectively, I can just give it a crack for whatever games I get back for. I’ll take it from there.
Leo Cullen is an ambassador for The Irish Times/Pfizer Healthy Town initiative in Wicklow. For a listing of events this week see irishtimes.com/healthytown