Last four standing do some straight-talking at this captain’s table

Captains of PRO12 semi-finalists look ahead to the weekend’s deciders and the future of the league

(L-R) Leo Cullen, Rob McCusker, Alastair Kellock and Johann Muller ahead of the PRO12 semi-finals this weekend. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

(L-R) Leo Cullen, Rob McCusker, Alastair Kellock and Johann Muller ahead of the PRO12 semi-finals this weekend. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Wed, May 8, 2013, 02:35

This week, Gerry Thornley sat down with the four captains of the Rabo Direct Pro12 semi-finalists - Johann Muller of Ulster, Leo Cullen of Leinster, Alastair Kellock of Glasgow Warriors and Rob McCusker of the Scarlets - to look ahead to the play-offs, reflect on the season thus far, the League’s merits, its current well-being and some of its stand-out performers.

Gerry Thornley: Let’s begin with the semi-finals and the first one on Friday, Ulster v the Scarlets at Ravenhill. Home advantage Johann, and you’ve won both previous meetings against the Scarlets?

Johann Muller: “A lot of work has been put in over eight months, so we’re obviously pleased to play at home. But we’ve lost at home once already against a very good Ospreys side, and we drew against Treviso. The Scarlets have done really well over the last six or seven weeks, played some really good rugby, so it’s going to be a tough one on Friday night.”

GT: “Rob, you’d won five in a row prior to last Friday, and then nearly blew a semi-final by losing at home to Treviso?

Rob McCusker: “They caught us napping. We could be out, and can count our blessings really that we’ve got one more chance. Thanks Leo. It’s tricky playing the Italians sides, they’ve got a lot better, they came to play some rugby and caused us problems, which was disappointing.”

Leo Cullen: “Earlier on in the year, we weren’t looking great to be honest for a home semi. Before Christmas we struggled to back up our performances so it’s very pleasing the way it’s panned out. We’ve had two very tough games against Glasgow, and there’s only been a score between us on both occasions and it’s a repeat of last year’s semi-final as well (Leinster won 19-15). They’ve brought in some really good players, and that’s added a huge amount to the way they play. In many ways Glasgow are the form team in the league.”

GT: “Al, that first game against Leinster (the Warriors lost 6-0) must have been a thriller?

Alastair Kellock: “It was during the autumn tests, wasn’t it?”

LC: “Yeah, I was playing in it. Three-nil in both halves; it was pretty exciting stuff. It started lashing down rain in the second-half. My type of game to be honest!”

AK: “I didn’t play in the one on our patch; I played in the recent one (Leinster winning 22-17 at the RDS). It was a close game. We got called for a forward pass at the end of the game when we may or may not have scored. We have memories of the semi-final last year as well. You have to try and use it as a bit of a motivation but there’s plenty of other motivating factors as well.”

GT: “But for the play-offs, Johann, in years past you would have been declared champions now?”

JM: “That’s the beauty of the tournament. Yes, we ended first, but there are no trophies for ending first and these play-offs are really important. It’s more rugby, the spectators will love it and the players are really looking forward to it.”

GT: “You’d be a fan of the play-offs Rob, coming in fourth?”

RM: “Definitely. It’s like a final for us and we have got a shot at the guys who’ve been consistently at the top. I think it keeps things interesting until the end of the season. A team could run away with it and people would lose interest. It gave us something to play for.”

GT: “To all of you, what are your views on the quality of the league?”

JM: “To see how this League has grown over the last three years has been a real eye-opener for me. I think in the first year every second or third weekend you could be off your game a little bit, at say 70 per cent, and still get the result. But this last season has been incredibly tough. I think it has the rugby that people want to see and players want to play. As Rob said earlier you don’t want one team running away with it and people losing interest.”

AK: “I think the fact that seven teams were going for that top four slot with three weeks to go shows you how competitive it is. I think it’s a brilliant league and it gets my back up when anything else is said about it. I think we’ve got, not just the best teams in Europe playing at the very top of it, but underneath we’ve got incredible strength. I’ve been playing 10 years in this League. I’ve not had the advantage of seeing what it is to play in the Premiership but I know this League and the way it has come forward. In Glasgow, we’re beginning now to rub shoulder to shoulder with some of these great European teams.”

RM: “I’ve been in the club for 10 years, from regional rugby and the Celtic League to today, and it’s ever-improving. With the introduction of the Italian teams. it took them a while, they’ll admit, to get into it, but they’re coming on leaps and bounds. Every week you’ve got to perform and like Ally says there are teams in this League amongst the best in Europe.”

LC: “The League has grown massively from where it started. I think the League posed a lot of challenges as well during the course of this season. It goes through different stages and phases and you’ve got to manage yourself through those stages. It’s a really good breeding ground for players. At other stages, teams are fully loaded and it’s a real red-hot battle again. I really like the way this League is laid out.”

GT: “If you could improve it any one given way... better refereeing?”

JM: “No comment.”

GT: “Put another way, if Heineken Cup qualification was more merit-based, and maybe reduced in number, would that make the League better.”

RM: “I can see why the other Leagues get a little aggrieved we don’t have to do that. Then again, it’s better for our League that the Italians play in the Heineken Cup. It improves them and it brings everyone on playing in the Heineken Cup.”

LC: “There are pros and cons. It would make the League very cut-throat and maybe you don’t then get the chance to develop some younger players, and coaches are maybe a little bit more hesitant. I don’t think it would change the league’s make-up drastically to tell you the truth.”

AK: “I agree with that, because as I already pointed out seven or eight teams were pushing for the top four. I think the Heineken Cup is a fantastic tournament so why change it? I can understand other people’s perspective but I think there’s a bit of self-interest in there. The League is in a good position as it stands at the moment.”

JM: “It’s such a great League, like Al says, that you don’t want to change it because it’s great fun and there’s great quality players coming through it.”

GT: “The advent of Sky from 2014-14 onwards...”

JM: “The Premiership obviously gets a huge amount of publicity, and that’s basically because of Sky. Sky is massive around the world and around Europe, and if we can get the people in England, and in France for that matter, seeing this League, that’s a great thing as well. The more publicity, the more interest from people around the rugby, the more spectators _ I think it’s a brilliant thing.”

AK: “I think the way Sky show any sport is fantastic. They sell it brilliantly to the viewing public and that can only be good for players involved in it. As Leo pointed out about the young players coming through, it gives them a bigger path and for more people to see the talent that’s in the League is fantastic.”

RM: “Like Al says, it opens the League up to the world really. There are only so many people who can watch S4/C or RTE, and to put us on that platform can only be good for the game, and if sponsorship and revenues come off the back of that, all the better.”

LC: “I’m not 100 per cent sure of the structure of the deal yet. The games being on TG4, and RTE especially, that is massive for the profile of the League because the amount of exposure that gets at peak viewing times on Friday and Saturday nights.”

GT: “The best League match you’ve been involved in this season?”

AK: “For me it was our game against the Ospreys after losing our first two games. It turned things around (kick-starting a run of six successive wins). Had we lost that game we would have been struggling, so that was the stand-out so far.”

JM: “Probably both our games against Leinster, at Christmas (Ulster won 27-19 at home) and the one recently (Ulster won 22-18 at the RDS in late March). When you play against the number one team in Europe it’s always a massive challenge. We played well in those games.”

RM: “Probably the opening day victory over Leinster in Parc Y Scarlets. We worked hard all summer and in the pre-season games but you never know quite how it’s going to go until that opening day. It was fantastic for us and it got us off on a really good footing. We went on to win three on the bounce.”

LC: “There was one game I sat on the bench and didn’t come on; it was against Connacht over Christmas. We’d lost three games on the bounce and we had a very, very young and inexperienced team, and they put in a great performance (winning 17-0). At the weekend it was nice to beat the Ospreys. They’d been a serious bogey team for us of late, particularly losing the final to them in RDS last year, and two years previously, and it cemented a home semi-final.”

GT: “Some stand-out performances, be it for yourselves or the opposition? Ian Madigan won your Leinster Player of the year Leo?”

LC: “He’s had some great performances for us this season. I dunno, there’s some outstanding performers from all the teams really. Obviously George North is a stand-out individual for you guys (nodding toward Rob). Josh Strauss has come in and been unbelievably good for Glasgow.”

AK: “Josh has been brilliant. And (scrumhalf) Nicola (Matawalu) won our player of the year. He gives us something a bit different. He gives us a bit of an attacking edge.”

LC: “I think (Nick) Williams for your guys (Ulster).”

JM: “Yea, seven man of the matches! An incredible season for him. But in every team one or two guys jump to mind immediately. I tell you what, the Ospreys scrumhalf, Kohn Fotuali’i, he’s been outstanding this season. He’s a physical little guy and he’s won a couple of games for them.”

LC: “I was pretty glad he wasn’t playing against us last week.”

RM: “Young Owen Williams came in at 10 when Rhys Priestland tore his Achilles. It was pretty hard coming in during the middle of the season and filling Rhys’s boots, but in the first couple of games in the LV (Trophy) he pretty much demolished Leicester Tigers on his own and a lot of the success over the latter part of the season is down to him. He’s only 21-years-old and is unfortunately leaving us at the end of the season (for Leicester) but has been fantastic for us this year.”

GT: There are only a couple of trophies you can get your hands on and this is one of them...”

AK: “It’s massive. For all of us, there’s been a lot of work just to get into this position. Obviously the two lads (Johann and Leo) have home semi-finals, but the work probably starts here. Everything that’s happened is in the past when Friday and Saturday come.”

LC: “And trying to keep the focus at this time of year. There are always a lot of distractions. Guys are getting picked on various tours, guys are talking about going on holidays, there’s awards being handed out around the place, but this is what it comes down to, and trying to put performances in on the big days.”

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