‘It never stays the same’ - Leo Cullen plays a straight bat to Stuart Lancaster speculation

Ciarán Frawley starts against Benetton despite being named in Emerging Ireland squad

Leo Cullen, who revealed his house was burgled last Monday night, played the straightest of straight bats to the prospect of losing Stuart Lancaster to Racing 92 next season.

Following a report in The Irish Times that Lancaster is due to hold a video meeting with the Parisian club’s owner Jacky Lorenzetti and current head coach Laurent Travers this coming weekend, Cullen was asked if it was true that his senior coach was on the verge of agreeing to join Racing and if he had spoken with Lancaster.

“We talk all the time, always during the season. You think you are coming to the start of the season but everyone is always making plans for the future. That’s players and staff and the backroom team as well. So it is like the silly season is there, always, up until a point where things get finalised.

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“So we are in a period of speculation, shall we say, and we can’t comment on other people’s speculation you know what I mean but there has always been things going on in the background.

“We are very lucky that we have a very strong group, some great people in our building and that’s credit to a lot of the work that goes on over the last number of years so we are very lucky in that regard.”

Continuing his answer, though, Cullen intimated that the province will invariably pay a price for their success in the form of others seeking their coaches and players.

“The reality is there is lots of other clubs who look at the talent, whether that is players or coaches, we have and that is something we have to deal with all of the time and people make different decisions at different stages. And we are trying to talk about one person specifically who has been amazing since he’s come into Leinster.”

Leinster have won one Champions Cup and reached two finals, as well as winning four Pro14 titles in Lancaster’s six seasons to date with the province, and asked how much of a loss his senior coach would be, Cullen said: “Again, we are just commenting on speculation. Like, how long have you got here? We just deal with all these cases individually, just the nature of it, generally people are signing for not much longer than two years.

“Every year fifty per cent of your coaching and playing roster are off contract so you just have to go through with that and you know that’s part of the evolution of teams, it never stays the same. We say it towards the end of every season where you are coming to the end of a season but that group is never going to be the same again.

“If you think, Denis Leamy is now down coaching at Munster. Felipe [Contepomi] is now involved with coaching Argentina during the Rugby Championship and there are other players who have already started their careers in other teams. We had a few of the lads playing for Connacht up in Ravenhill last week and a couple of lads I’ve seen running out in Exeter jerseys as well. So that’s just part and parcel of the business we are in.”

In his innately jocular way, Cullen implored anyone who has a sighting of his Leinster bag, which contained his laptop, passport and, most importantly, his notes, to return said items to him after they were stolen last Monday night.

“I did media on Monday, and on Monday evening went to bed. My wife woke me up in the middle of the night and said she thought someone had been in the house. I went downstairs, my work laptop, passport and wallet had all been robbed out of our living room. I was scrambling around last week.

“By the end of the game in Zebre I was very relieved, A, that I was there, and B, that we got a bonus point win, it was tight in the end. So if anyone finds a Leinster laptop bag, with a laptop in it with all my notes and my passport, I would love to find it again please.

“So it was a strange week, but we’re through it now, and it’s just looking on to the next challenge for our lads. We’ve got five points, it wasn’t perfect last week, but we need to be a hell of a lot better if we want to progress and make the end of the season, the games we all want to be involved in, which is the playoffs.”

Of some consolation was that no-one was hurt during the break-in.

“I have some footage of the guy going into the back of our house. It’s all part of the joys. The Gardai are on the case.”

When reminded of Bundee Aki leading a delegation of Connacht players who retrieved Robbie Henshaw’s laptop in Galway after it was stolen back in the latter’s days in the west, Cullen laughed and said: “I must get in touch with Bundee and see if we can get the vigilante group back together again.”

Cullen has made 11 changes to Leinster’s starting line-up for their first home game of the season when hosting Benetton at the RDS tomorrow evening at 7.35pm (live on TG4 and Premier Sport), with Henshaw one of eight Irish internationals making their seasonal re-appearance.

“We’re excited to see this group play. There are always plenty of challenges, every team has some level of challenge. We’re trying to reintegrate guys for their first game of the season against a team, Benetton, who had a big win last week. That team pretty much played the week before against Edinburgh as well in a pre-season friendly and some even played the week before that,” said Cullen on reference to Benetton’s first pre-season friendly against Sale.

“You’re playing against guys who maybe have two or three games under their belt already. So, that’s a bit of a challenge, and it’s important for our guys to respect that. The lads have trained hard this week, it’s been a short week, but we’re excited to be back here at the RDS. That’s the big thing.

“We finished last season, losing a game at the RDS in the semi-final, so it’s up to all of us, anyone involved in the team, creating a level of excitement about being back here at the RDS. We need to make it exciting in terms of the product that the players produce on the field, and everybody in terms of support feeds into that. We want big crowds here at the RDS, because we know it makes a big difference. It’s round one of that process so hugely excited to get going now.”

Surprisingly, Ciarán Frawley starts at outhalf despite being named in an Emerging Ireland squad that goes into camp on Friday ahead of a Sunday departure for South Africa. Ulster and Munster have stated publicly that they will be without their players in that squad for this weekend.

Only Luke McGrath, Dave Kearney Michael Ala’alatoa and Jason Jenkins retain their places from the side that suffered a scare away to Zebre last week as a rake of internationals return.

Leinster: Jimmy O’Brien; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose (captain), Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney; Ciarán Frawley, Luke McGrath; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa; Jason Jenkins, James Ryan; Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Ed Byrne, Cian Healy, Ross Molony, Will Connors, Cormac Foley, Ross Byrne, Charlie Ngatai.

Benetton: Ignacio Mendy; Mattia Bellini, Joaquin Riera, Marco Zanon, Onisi Ratave; Giacomo Da Re, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne; Ivan Nemer, Giacomo Nicotera, Simone Ferrari; Niccolò Cannone, Scott Scrafton; Giovanni Pettinelli, Michele Lamaro (captain), Toa Halafihi.

Replacements: Gianmarco Lucchesi, Federico Zani, Filippo Alongi, Carl Wegner, Henry Time-Stowers, Manfredi Albanese, Tommaso Menoncello, Ratuva Tavuyara.

Referee: Jaco Peyper (SARU)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times