Gaffer and grafter ready to do hard work again
He may be 35 but the Leinster captain is still as ambitious as ever, writes JOHN O'SULLIVAN
Leo Cullen decants to room temperature as he steps inside from a decidedly frosty morning. The mercury is barely above zero degrees. He is beginning to regret his decision to cycle, particularly without gloves or a hat.
The bike is locked to a railing outside. It’s distinctive amongst a gaggle of others as it’s painted in the Leinster rugby livery; navy blue and yellow with pale blue tyre walls. It’s the morning of his 35th birthday and while there are probably a thousand others places he’d rather be, he is generous with his time, thoughtful in his answers and honest in appraising team and personal issues.
This evening at the RDS, Leinster must contend with unfamiliar circumstances.
The province have won successive Heineken Cups and three in the last four years, but as a result of back-to-back defeats against Clermont Auvergne, a perilous passage to the play-offs must be negotiated.
It’s not simply good enough to beat the Scarlets or the Exeter Chiefs, whom they face next Saturday in their Devon demesne, as victories must be gift wrapped in bonus points if they want to prolong their defence of their European title.
There is mitigation for their plight in injury, a little misfortune in the away loss to Clermont, but when winning titles lady luck occasionally casts a smile in their direction so they’re not about to quibble now that all they can currently see is her back.
The mantle of captaincy sits easily on Cullen’s shoulders; has done since the then Ireland Under-19 coach Declan Kidney approached him to lead the team in the age-grade World Cup in Argentina.
Since then he’s captained the Ireland Under-21s, Under-25s, As, and against Scotland in 2011, became the 100th player to captain the Ireland senior team. He led the Leicester Tigers on 15 occasions and is the only man to captain three Heineken Cup-winning sides.
December was a challenging month. Experience taught him how to cope. “The feeling I had after the two Clermont matches was something I hadn’t had in a while. There were sleepless nights, where things were running through my head. There was a lot of soul-searching.
“As you get older you want what’s best for the team. You question yourself a lot more. Then after a while, after analysing the pools you focus on what can be done, not what wasn’t. You just need a glimmer of hope. That’s what I am clinging on to at the moment. It was, though, a pretty tough period, challenging.”
Hindsight offers clarity on a number of issues. Cullen explained: “They (Clermont) are a bloody good team and we know when we come up against the best teams in Europe we need to get a lot of things right on the day.
“Over the last number of years we have been good at it but this time we didn’t quite get enough right.
“I thought we prepared really well for the away game, acquitted ourselves capably but we just didn’t get enough out of the game.
“Discipline was a key issue over the two matches.”
Clermont scrumhalf Morgan Parra kicked 11 penalties over the two games. He continued: “Clermont were a team who scored 12 tries in their first two games, scored one try against us and beat us back to back. It says a lot about the way the games went.