Leo Cullen and Isa Nacewa dodge the hard questions
Leinster coach and captain refuse to be drawn on IRFU policy towards provinces
Toulon’s Drew Mitchell is denied a try by Leinster’s Seán Cronin and Isa Nacewa. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
This was Leo Cullen’s mulligan. Everyone knows Leinster are in a period of rebuilding without the correct tools to actually do so in this new European environment.
So what’s a successful season for Cullen’s Leinster now? “Top two and a home semi-final in the Pro12 but that’s a long, long way away,” said the 37-year-old head coach after Toulon’s resounding 20-16 victory at the Aviva Stadium.
IRFU high performance director David Nucifora, the 53-year-old employed to modernise the professional game in Ireland, is rumoured to be finally coming before the media next week – Christmas week of all weeks when minds are anywhere but rugby – to discuss that always reliable internal World Cup review and the movement of players either abroad or between provinces (what say he on Ian Madigan or Simon Zebo or this Rodney Ah You shift to Ulster or Robbie Henshaw to Leinster, what say he?).
And a myriad of other issues that the public want answers on. Because the European rugby landscape is changing rapidly and people want to see and hear from the leadership to see if Irish rugby can adapt. How does the IRFU plan to keep pace with the English and French club juggernauts?
In the meantime Cullen, like his predecessor Matt O’Connor, is handcuffed by the union’s edict which still slavishly conforms to the layer cake mentality of Ireland taking precedence over the provinces.
Wait until you see the teams for Munster versus Leinster in Limerick on December 27th. There’s an Ireland camp coming, so that will be the priority.
Leinster’s potentially toughest ever season has some way to go yet.
They will “reassess”. That was the word of the day. Repeated over and over again. Go back into their UCD bubble to plan some way to halt this unprecedented losing streak. Until now Leinster had never lost their opening four European games. Cullen stared down that unwanted fact.
But both coach and captain Isa Nacewa refused to fully acknowledge the elephant in the room after this crushing defeat to three-time European champions Toulon.
The scoreline is misleading. Leinster, as Cullen said himself, were “suffocated” by a team that operates in an other-worldly financial arena.
“They just wore us down with power, that’s the reality.
“It’s not something we had to deal with in the past, if you go back five or six years ago. It’s a very different challenge now. We need to reassess where we go in the tournament next year.”
“That’s well above my level,” said Cullen of the need to prioritise the provinces despite the national team being the main financial engine of the IRFU. “I’ll focus on what I can control.”
O’Connor highlighted the straightjacket he was working in last season only to be publicly dressed down by Joe Schmidt. “That’s well above my pay packet,” echoed Nacewa to the same question.
“I don’t think about that stuff. I think about the 15, the 23 we can put out each week.”
But is that not thinking about the very thing he claims not to be thinking about?
“We are still here to chase trophies and that’s going to be our goal come Monday,” Nacewa continued. “Look, the landscape is changing every year. I don’t really think about it too much, to be honest. We’re here to focus on winning each week. There are so many things out of our control that are not worth thinking about.”
Far too many things out of their control. And now we are seeing the knock-on effect.
“We have never been out of the competition this early,” Cullen added.
“When that happens you soul search and that’s what we will do. A strong look, like we normally would. This season we have learned some really harsh lessons. We don’t make life easy for ourselves because of the first two results as well.
“There was a lot of good things in the first half. But just the power, how we deal with that going forward, we need to have a good reassess of where we are going.”
The question won’t change. Reassess – does that not mean recruitment (in fairness, Kane Douglas certainly looked like that very man at the World Cup)?
“When we were winning Heineken Cups, there was no Toulon,” Cullen noted.
He even suggested Leinster “maybe caught them on the hop” in last year’s semi-final that ended in an extra-time defeat after Bryan Habana’s intercept try. The same great Springbok winger who didn’t get a touch of the ball Saturday night as Toulon’s pack squeezed the life out of Jamie Heaslip’s smaller warriors.
“Toulon, it’s playing by slightly different rules,” Cullen said. “We need to have a good look at how we take on a team like that.”
Different financial rules? “Well, they are allowed to sign 16 foreigners.
“The rules that we have are about bringing young guys through. Creating a pathway for a young player that wants to play for Leinster, to play for Ireland. It’s different. They sign experienced overseas players who have incredible experience and a lot of Test-match experience.
“When you add that to the mix, it is very tough to play against it. I’m not sure what way it is going to go but it is getting more and more difficult.”
That’s exactly the way it is going.