Leo Cullen: ‘That was as nervous as I have ever been before a game’

Two years ago this week Leinster’s coach gave five players their first European start

Leo Cullen: “When the teams were announced I remember reading comments about how I was disrespecting the competition for picking young players for their first starts in Europe.” Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

Nobody is comparing the New England Patriots to little old Leinster but the dynastic NFL franchise provide the ultimate marker for all and any sporting operation.

The Robert Kraft (owner) –Bill Belichick (coach) – Tom Brady (quarterback) triumvirate shows signs of cracking, according to ESPN sources, over 40-year-old Brady’s training methodology. These are heavyweight egos. This could be a media campaign to stymie utter domination or a fact-based inevitability. Probably a bit of both.

Past reactions tells us this can only harden internal resolve as the AFC conference final looms.

Leinster, like any successful sports club, also need an axe to constantly grind. Any slight will do.


Still, Leo Cullen was in cheerful form at Friday’s press conference ahead of a weakened Glasgow’s visit to the RDS on Sunday (perhaps it was his turning 40 last Monday).

Reassuringly, Cullen’s spiky media persona briefly reared its head to fan the flames. Two years ago his coaching credentials were placed under serious scrutiny. Leinster trudged into January already knocked out of Europe by the weight of Toulon blows. The rookie coach flung the dice against a Bath side littered with England internationals. Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, Peter Dooley, Ian Madigan and Josh van der Flier started.

“When the teams were announced I remember reading comments about how I was disrespecting the competition for picking young players for their first starts in Europe,” said Cullen. “The following November five got capped for Ireland.”

With the pressure valve ever tightening as Cullen attempted to steady a creaking ship after the knee-jerk dismissal of Matt O’Connor, the risk seemed enormous.

“That was as nervous as I have ever been before a game as a coach or as a player. How those young guys go is important to me and to the club. We want to try and do what’s right by them. It’s great to see the progression of those players.”

Cullen held his nerve. The boys were really men. Leinster won 25-11.

Stuart Lancaster’s arrival has lightened the burden but these decisions refuse to go away; form versus reputation is a constant debate at Leinster.

Good luck

Jordan Larmour starting fullback over Rob Kearney gets scribbled down as a changing of the guard. Or it’s rotation. Probably a bit of both.

Really, it’s Fergus McFadden’s fault – see his two-try showing against Ulster – with Kearney expected to return for next week’s journey to Montpellier.

Of course Kearney once was Larmour. Just ask Girvan Dempsey, who was once the all-seeing Leinster and Ireland 15. Kearney arrived straight out of Clongowes Wood College as a physical specimen primed for the professional game.  Different skill set to Larmour’s – less pace, more aerial supremacy – but the same potential.

Ironically, Adam Byrne – facing a long lay off due to a knee problem suffered against Argentina on his Ireland debut – was due to wear 14, and not McFadden, against Ulster. Good and bad luck still play a massive role.

Larmour is in sensational form but Kearney looks certain to be the Ireland fullback in Paris. Jared Payne’s struggle with migraines since the summer saw the 31-year-old reclaim the 15 jersey in November following his latest injury lay-off.

Still, imagine telling Kearney he was not running from fullback this past week.

“There were a few tough calls,” Cullen dryly replied.

Whither Joey Carbery?

Carbery being Jordan Larmour, before Garry Ringrose was Carbery; the latest sensation bursting from the schools system. It’s unending, so a ridiculous conundrum is promised when all of them are healthy, which will eventually happen.

Kearney is the only established, and fit, Ireland international not starting tomorrow. Jordi Murphy edges out Dan Leavy at blindside but the latter is just back from injury. Same goes for Carbery who togs as the 24th man.

Unquestionably, this team was picked on form (see the line-up for Montpellier for further proof).

Maybe Leinster will have to trade Carbery to Ulster and Larmour to Munster – like Kraft/Belichick had to do with Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Franciso 49ers to keep Brady happy. Forget about such moves from Mick Dawson to keep Kearney and Sexton brimming. Rugby isn’t anywhere near that glass ceiling.

Gordon D’arcy wrote about then and now in his column. Back in the day the primary message at this juncture of the season was: ‘Don’t f**k up January.’ That still resonates but seems unfathomable in the current climate of riches. Especially with Glasgow landing without Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Zander Fagerson and Jonny Gray.

Good environment

Another difference between the past and present is a few good individual performances for Leinster tends to catapult a player onto the Six Nations platform.

“One of the things that really stands out for me is the amount of young guys that have been capped and stepped up in the last 18 months to two years,” said Isa Nacewa, a handy centre option tomorrow as Ringrose is crocked.

“When I came here in 2008 there was the likes of Fergus McFadden, Rhys Ruddock, Dominic Ryan, Eoin O’Malley, guys that were young at the time who really stepped up and there has been a massive influx in the last two-to-three years of guys coming out of the Academy and the dynamics of the team has changed.

“There’s not too many old heads any more, there’s a lot of young guys that have been given an opportunity and taken it. That’s a good environment to be a stepping-stone towards.”

That brings us back to Larmour step stoning past every defender he met over Christmas.

“Jordan is just fun to play with,” Nacewa continued. “He wasn’t here during the successful times of Leinster’s past and I think that’s a good thing because he doesn’t have any boundaries in the way he thinks. He is getting out there, enjoying himself, and playing his style of rugby and he has played bloody well and we just feed off that and leave the selection to the big dogs and then we just get on with it.

“He has got a really canny ability to keep his high speed when side-stepping off either foot. You don’t see that in every player so when he can do that similar to the try scored in Munster that’s a pretty special talent to have.

“When he first came on board, he looked like an out and out finisher, that knew how to get to the try line, and I think the coaches have done a superb job in managing him. He’s been involved in the Dragons game, the first game of the season, and scored a great try, and he’s just got better every week. He works hard, off the field as well, with the coaches, in the analysis room, he’s always trying to improve, which is a good quality to have.”

Is he the next...?

“I don’t want force him into any box, he’s just doing things his own way, and that’s the beauty about him.”

Nacewa could be describing Rob Kearney from 2005, or 2009 when Nacewa kept him and Dempsey out of the Heineken Cup final side, or as recently as November 2017.

Same imprint on the canvas.