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.
“I understand that you give away penalties when you’re under pressure but that wasn’t the case all of the time.”
Tournament history underlines the importance of the back-to-back tussles. Clermont rested several frontline players for a losing trip to Toulouse in the week prior to the first Leinster match and made 14 changes to the side that played in Dublin for a Top 14 match in Bordeaux the following week.
Cullen admitted: “We didn’t manage it well enough, if I am being honest. Maybe people thought we were better than we were after (getting the bonus point away).
“It goes back to getting a lot of things right on any given day when we play against a good team.
“I just don’t think we produced the same intensity (at home) as we have done in the past. Guys battled to the very end, obviously; we got two tries in the last 15 minutes to get another point. The following week we went up to Ulster. They are a very good team and we came unstuck there. We lost three games in a row.”
One thing that had struck him at the time was the quasi-celebration outside the squad when Leinster returned home with a bonus point from Clermont.
“I remember thinking that it wasn’t going to mean a huge amount unless we won the following week (in the Aviva Stadium); we didn’t.
“The true value of those bonus points will only be decided after we play Exeter in two weeks’ time. We still have a chance. We just need to focus our energy on what we can do now, not what we could or should have done in December. That’s just the nature of it.
“I was on the bench for the Connacht game after Christmas. A lot of young guys came in and played. I got really rejuvenated that week; weirdly enough. The performance was exceptional. I hope that is the turning point in our year. That’s the way I see it. It was turned by a lot of younger, less experienced names.
“They came up against a pretty streetwise Connacht team and won well. It was more the manner of the performance rather than the result. A lot of faces came back into the mix last week against Edinburgh. The performance was patchy but there were a lot of quality players coming back into form.
“It was a good chance to blow out the cobwebs. It was nice to have some positive flow of momentum into this week.
“We must push as hard as we can for the next two weeks and see where it takes us. That’s all we can control at the moment. We had a good couple of days down in Johnstown House. It was nice to get everyone together, spend a bit more time in everyone’s company.
“We are just looking forward to the two matches, playing with ambition, playing like we don’t want to go out of tournament in the next two weeks.”
That starts with today’s game at the RDS. Hypothetically speaking what would he do if Leinster were awarded a penalty, 15 metres from the Scarlets line, 20 minutes into the match with the scores at 0-0?
He smiles: “The preference is to score tries, a no-brainer, but you have to weigh that up against how the game is going. Are they still in the game mentally? How is it unfolding? We know we have to score a few tries over the next couple of weeks and we have tried to prepare for that accordingly.
“When I am on the sideline and there is a decision to be made – if I’m on the bench or not involved – kick to the corner, take a scrum, a shot of goal, it can take me what seems like ages to weight it up in my head. Whereas when I am on the field those decisions are instant, instinctive, whether right or wrong. I make my decision and won’t be swayed what anyone else says.
“We played Zebre in the RDS. We got a penalty and I opted for a scrum. I could have gone to the corner but it was Benty’s (Michael Bent) first start and I thought ‘let’s see what this guy’s got’. There is no set formula just a rationale behind every decision.”
Cullen’s work ethic, his willingness to graft selflessly on behalf of the team, is occasionally overlooked, hidden beneath the vibrant brushstrokes of Leinster’s rugby artistry, when in their playing pomp. It’s appreciated by his team-mates and those who care to look beneath the bonnet of the province’s success.
“I am out of contract at the end of the season. We are in conversation about the future is the best way of describing it. We haven’t got very far yet. That’s obviously both sides.
“We’ll wait and see. Every season I think this will be my last season.
“When I came back from England (Leicester Tigers) I signed a three-year contract. I had to fight really hard to get that third year and I thought I’d be finished at the end of it. After that I signed a two-year deal and then a one year. Now I’m out of contract at the end of the season, as things stand.
“I am as ambitious as ever. I would have loved to have been in with a chance of playing (for Ireland) in November. I would love to be in with a chance of playing in the Six Nations.
“That’s just the way my mind thinks. I think that’s realistic. Other people might look at my age (35) and have a different option.”
Not on the evidence of this season.
Born: Newtownmountkennedy, Wicklow
Height: (1.98) 6ft 6ins
Weight: 111kg (17st 6lbs)
Club: Blackrock College
Ireland caps: 32
Leinster Caps: 186 (20 points)
Leinster A caps: 5
Ireland A caps: 17
Ireland Under-25 caps: 1
Ireland Under-21 Caps: 16 (14 as captain)
Leinster Under-20 Caps: 7
Ireland Under-19 Caps: 4 (3 as captain)
Ireland Schools Caps: 7
Leinster Schools Caps: 3 (also played in all eight games on 1995/’96 Australia tour)
Leicester Tigers appearances: 56 (15 as captain)
Leicester Tigers Heineken Cup Appearances: 12