Mental toughness and a little 1999 genius can see off formidable Glasgow challenge

Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll have been the steady heads behind Leinster success

Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen: “For all the players that came and went over 15 years those two remained crucial.” Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho.

Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen: “For all the players that came and went over 15 years those two remained crucial.” Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho.


Many moons ago, all the way back in 1999, I wondered, in conversation with Matt Williams, were we already becoming too reliant on the amazing Brian O’Driscoll and his ridiculous get-out-of-jail genius that saved our bacon and covered up many deficiencies in our game/options/strategies.

For too long the culture within Leinster was based on pure talent. This week I discussed with rugby mates the top three characteristics a player should possess. Chief among them was mental toughness. Intrigued by nature v nurture, I inquired was this mental toughness natural or developed?

All insisted it was impossible to develop. I disagreed because – if that were so – what then occurred between those early years and Leinster’s three Heineken Cups?

As now, the team in 1999 was full of stars, but couldn’t consistently win those big Heineken Cup games. This perplexed us because we won some cracking matches, Northampton home and away, Leicester ditto. For all the players that came and went over those 15 years two remained crucial – Leo Cullen and O’Driscoll.Why? Was it theirs nature or nurture? For all Leinster’s beautiful game the team needed to know when to get ugly and together these two were significant.

Back then, Cullen’s name would pop up in team selection every week where the recurring question regarding the secondrow was Malcom O’Kelly’s partner. Leo was in tough competition with Bob Casey and other talented secondrows. At times it became a rotation between Leo and Bob, for no other reason than being unable to decide!

From the off Leo was different from the other “kids”. He certainly had mental toughness but even in the early days, he had that unique ingredient – a steady head.

Not many in elite sport possess this critical quality which convinces others “don’t follow me, follow my vision” regardless of the challenges.

His arrival back from Leicester was the most significant ingredient in Leinster’s European trophies; his most impressive achievement was convincing players higher up the talent chain to step in line.


Toughness is something synonymous with rugby which Leinster players such as Trevor Brennan had in spades; but Cullen and O’Driscoll have a blended version making their partnership the most significant in Irish sport.


So, to tomorrow! Against Glasgow, Munster’s opening two minutes was full of control, with flat running, especially from Munster’s David Kilcoyne, who started brilliantly, looking very comfortable on the ball in space and out wide.

The rest of the team were equally hard in their running and zones of attack, until outside centre Casey Laulala dropped his first pass. Moments later, Ian Keatley kicked out on the full and the two-minute spark faded.

That said, Munster’s try after nine minutes 50 seconds came from a beautiful off the top lineout at two from David Foley. He has beautiful hands in finding his scrumhalf on the right hand side, who hit James Downey ploughing deep into Glasgow. From there, classic Munster one up play inched slowly left to eventually get Damien Varley over. Leinster can equally punish Glasgow from this gain line play.

Munster’s fringe defence started well, with quick line speed but their backline conceded space to the Glasgow backline ball-carriers, which gave Glasgow a massive advantage off phase play. Why?

The bearded wonder that is Josh Strauss at number eight is impressive in his ball-carrying and clever lines of running. But he is especially good at instinctive decisions when carrying in traffic, bouncing players if necessary or slipping around weak shoulders and offloading to better placed players or simply carrying himself. He is a quality player and Leinster don’t need to give him or scrum half Nikola Matawalu front foot possession. I expect Leinster’s defence to be far more aggressive.


Leone Nakarawa has an outrageous impact on the game, carrying in heavy traffic while telescoping his arm sky high with the ball resting peacefully on top waiting for a Glasgow runner to pop up.


He is no slouch in a Glasgow lineout, which is very impressive in its functionality. It was especially clinical against the mighty Paul O’Connell, where they were very comfortable targeting O’Connell’s defensive lineout zone. This is often tried but usually ends in one way with O’Connell stealing. Glasgow did this comfortably several times, which is an insight into how confident they are in their systems.

Off defensive lineouts Glasgow fly outside centre Mark Bennett up to shut the defensive door from potential off-the-top lineouts. Such quick plays will force Leinster’s 10 and 12 down the heavy channel to meet big man Alex Dunbar. Dunbar is equally comfortable carrying into heavy traffic. Their scrum stood tall to the considerable test of Kilcoyne, Varley and BJ Botha.

In summary, Glasgow have a lovely ability to vary their point of attack, be it down the blindside or open and crucially, seem comfortable either side.

This indicates to me a team in unison, where without heavy communication the fatties and fancies, know what to do and react accordingly so the error count remains low.

Put simply, they know what they’re doing!

Leinster’s defence, but especially their mental toughness honed by Cullen and O’Driscoll will see them through tomorrow, giving these two giants a fitting end. Thank you. A little genius from 1999 might be needed too.

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