Cullen confirmed as Leinster captain
Munster’s fledgling captain Peter O’Mahony relishing challenge ahead
Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor. Photograph: James Crombie/INPHO
Leinster’s new coach Matt O’Connor confirmed at the official launch of the Rabo Direct Pro12 at the Titanic Experience in Belfast that Leo Cullen will captain the province for the forthcoming season retaining an appointment that keeps an element of consistency that now spans the coaching regimes of Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt and the current incumbent.
O’Connor explained: “He’s got a pretty good pedigree. He’s the only guy to lift the Heineken Cup three times. Leo epitomises everything the group values, he’s been an incredible leader . . . And the feeling was that there was no need to change away from that.”
The Australian smiled when asked whether the decision was in any way influenced by outside contingencies, like the captaincy of Ireland. “I don’t think Leo will get it! It wasn’t an issue for us. It was about making sure our shop was in order and whatever Joe (Schmidt) does up the chain wasn’t really a consideration for us.”
The mantle sits easily on the 35-year-old Cullen’s shoulders.
“I love doing it (the captaincy), love representing the group. As the season panned out last year, you soul search a lot more when you’re losing those games against Clermont (Auvergne), that’s when you start contemplating giving up the game. Then when you start winning those games at the end of the year, that’s when it feels like you can play forever.
“There’ll come a day when I’ll have to make that decision. But for now, I love what I do.”
Sitting less than a dozen feet away at an adjacent table was Munster’s fledgling captain, 23-year-old Peter O’Mahony. The Ireland backrow forward has captained every team for which he’s played, from club through to international level.
He admitted: “I’ve got good experience at schools and underage levels and I’ve always enjoyed captaining sides. I’ve captained Munster a couple of times before when Paulie (O’Connell) and Dougie (Howlett) and these guys have been away so it’s not particularly going to faze me this year.”
On the issue of bossing Paul O’Connell around, O’Mahony shrugged: “I don’t have to be telling Paulie what to do. He’s not going to carry on any different just because I’m captain . . . It’s encouraging for me as well that Rob’s (Penney) put his faith in me to do a job this year.”
Munster coach Penney explained that whatever may happen in relation to the Ireland captaincy had no bearing on his decision. He said that O’Mahony had lost out by a whisker to Howlett last season for the role as captain so following the All Black wing’s retirement he was the logical choice.
Penney continued: “It made it a very sensible choice for us to go with Pete and because of the bloke he is he’s going to be a great leader for a long time. He’ll recognise this himself that he’s not the finished product yet but he’s got the attributes . . . I’ve got no doubt.
“And when you’ve someone like Paul O’Connell in the group, there were no discussions about what his future was in relation to the Irish scene . . . it was more about Paul really embracing Peter as the next leader of the group.”
The New Zealander chuckled as he confirmed that there was one other surprise candidate for the Munster captaincy, Simon Zebo.
Apparently as a forfeit on tour the Lions wing was obliged by his team-mates to ring Penney, while the latter was on holiday, enquiring as to whether he could be skipper.
Penney recalled: “I thought he had either lost his phone or he needed some guidance. So I rang him back and I thought he was very formal. So that was the first little hint that something wasn’t quite right. (I thought) he was either being held by gunpoint or was up to something. Then I heard a little giggle.”