Leo Cullen managing Leinster’s bigger picture to perfection

Senior team are beneficiaries of good work which goes on at club and schools level

Three weeks ago in Cape Town the clock was in the red against the Stormers. Leinster, trailing 20-13, had just earned a penalty. The replacement outhalf Harry Byrne tapped the ball and then kicked it dead, so ending the contest and settling for the losing bonus point.

Alex Soroka was visibly peed off. He held out his hands plaintively, clearly questioning Byrne's decision. Soroka wanted Leinster to go up the line and go for the draw. The 21 year-old academy and Clontarf lock was making his first start of the season, having only played one game off the bench, and that was in the defeat with a losing bonus point the week before against the Sharks.

He’d had a stormer too, his athleticism and tackling earning him the man of the match award. But the bonus point in Cape Town was sufficient to ensure Leinster finished top of the table, thus guaranteeing them the carrot of a home route all the way to the final. Mission accomplished. Ciarán Frawley could then be seen explaining the rationale to Soroka.

Considering what they're up against domestically and abroad, what makes Leinster's success all the more remarkable is that of the 59 players used this season, all but six are home-grown players

The episode told us a few things, notably how the 11 academy players in the 31-man squad who featured in those two games took to the challenge. Returning with two losing bonus points has been in many ways one of the highlights of Leinster’s season and underlined their remarkable production line and strength in depth.

The academy trio of lock Brian Deeny and hookers John McKee and Lee Barron made their debuts for Leinster in the Sharks game, while Chris Cosgrave made his first start. Against the Stormers, academy flanker Seán O'Brien made his first appearance of the season from the bench.

This took the number of players used by Leinster this season to 59, which comprises of 46 senior professionals and 13 academy players.

This skilful and judicious balancing act is, by many accounts, where Leo Cullen’s understated and underrated genius comes in, although understandably he’s keen to pass on plenty of the credit as it requires a huge amount of work by a huge amount of people to keep the well-oiled Leinster machine chugging along.

“Yeah, it is a challenge for guys because they all want to play, for sure. Some of the younger guys would have an understanding in terms of the bigger picture and all the rest. But I have to say they’ve really done a great job.”

This is why he describes Soroka’s aforementioned reaction as “one of my favourite images of the season”, adding: “It is a great mindset to have because obviously they want to win the game, which I really like, and I don’t like kicking the ball out at the end but in terms of managing the bigger picture that’s sometimes what has to be done.

“So the guys, I have to say, have acquitted themselves well and it creates a positive pressure in terms of that selection piece which is what you want and long may it continue that those young guys keep putting the pressure on.

"But a lot of work goes into that as well, so huge credit to Simon Broughton and all the academy coaches. Even when we played Connacht in those Champions Cup weeks the lads were getting ready for that South African trip and managing that time well. But yeah, it's a positive headache to have, so don't get me wrong.

“This week is another chance for guys and I suppose what they’ve done over the course of the last X number of weeks, it gives you confidence to pick them again and that’s what you want. You want those guys to go on and build up the caps so they become more experienced players all the time. But the guys are working hard for each other, which is pleasing.”

Investment

Aside from affording the frontline squad that three week run-in to the quarter-final and a two week build-up to next Saturday's Champions Cup final against La Rochelle in Marseilles, that South African safari was also an investment in the future.

The unfortunate Tommy O'Brien, since sidelined with an ACL injury for a possible nine months, didn't look remotely fazed by coming up against World Cup final try-scorer Makazele Mapimpi. McKeen and Barron each pitted themselves against another World Cup winner in Bongi Mbonambi.

Brian Deeny faced off against Gerbrandt Grobler, and all the backrowers, including Martin Moloney, played against Siya Kolisi, while the 22-year-old Thomas Clarkson scrummaged against Steven Kitshoff.

The reward for 14 of the squad that played in those games in South Africa is a place in the match-day squad day in front of a 30,000-plus crowd against Munster at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 7.15pm) this evening. It is Leinster's only dead rubber out of 26 to 28 matches this season, but doubtless none of them will be treating it like that.

It is also a measure of how well Cullen and his staff have managed the players that only six have topped 1,000 minutes, with Ross Molony leading the way on 1,389 in his 20 games played so far in becoming a frontline lock.

The flagship and most important element of the Leinster pyramid is the excellence of their first team.

It’s the team everyone in the pyramid aspires to play for and in this Leinster are indebted to the clubs, who introduce kids to the game and have become more important this season at AIL level, and of course the schools, as well as Leinster’s own army of regional development officers and coaches.

But no system is perfect. Next season, Leinster will have 18 players in their 45-man senior squad who have come through St Michael's or Blackrock, as well as 45 per cent of next season's academy. That leaves them heavily reliant on two schools, and hoped-for investment in regional centres of excellence might unearth more Tadhg Furlongs or Jamie Osbornes.

Strong and physical, with a good left boot, the talented centre/fullback will be starting his 10th game of 12 appearances this season and Osborne will surely be fast-tracked into the senior squad next season, if that hasn’t already happened.

A 20-year-old product of Naas RFC, Osborne's ball playing talents were clearly honed by also playing GAA in his formative years, and his emergence also acts as a reminder that Dublin's depth of playing talent is probably greater than rugby's in all of Ireland, never mind just Leinster.

“Yeah of course you want to get the best reach as possible and we know in Ireland it’s competitive for the hearts and minds of kids and their parents as well,” says Cullen. “GAA hoovers up a lot of the talent in terms of engaging the kids, and soccer as well. I see that as a parent myself.

“But for us we need to make sure that we try to broaden the base as wide as possible and get into all corners of the province to get as many kids as early as possible engaged in the game and get excited about playing, and continue to play as well.

“The role of the clubs this season has been fantastic as well because we haven’t had that many ‘A’ games if you think about it. So a lot of our guys have gone back, whether that be some senior guys but certainly the majority of the academy guys have had a lot of very valuable game time with the clubs as well, which is good to see.

"Like, you had an all-Leinster final between 'Tarf and Terenure which is fantastic. We played an 'A'/academy game against the clubs a few weeks ago, which is a really nice concept as well. It is important that we try to engage with the clubs as much as possible. That's where the work goes in on the ground.

“So we are the beneficiaries of a lot of that good work which goes on in the schools that you mentioned, clearly, but lots of the clubs out there as well on top of that.

"Even that Universities game (against Leinster 'A' a week ago) Tony Smeeth, my former under-20 coach from Blackrock, was ably assisted by Hugh Maguire with the Irish Universities. Hugh was my under-12 coach in school. It's great to see those types of people still delivering at many levels of the game really, because you need those great people involved in the game."

Leinster seek their fifth Heineken Champions Cup star next weekend and will then turn their intentions towards the quarter-finals a week later and a tilt at a fifth league title in a row. But it's the way they have become a European powerhouse which sets them apart.

Home-grown

Considering what they're up against domestically and abroad, what makes Leinster's success all the more remarkable is that of the 59 players used this season, all but six are home-grown players - namely Michael Ala'alatoa, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park, Robbie Henshaw, Seán Cronin and Rhys Ruddock, and he did quickly pass through the Leinster academy when moving from Wales.

Then one can also factor in how much their conveyor belt has fed into the other three provinces and continues to do so.

The Leinster Machine. There’s really nothing quite like it anywhere else in world rugby.

59 and counting - The players Leinster have used this season

Vakh Abdaladze - 103 minutes played

Michael Ala’alatoa - 1,068

Ryan Baird - 442

Lee Barron - 39

Adam Byrne - 451

Ed Byrne - 577

Ross Byrne - 1,089

Harry Byrne - 437

Thomas Clarkson - 218

Jack Conan - 655

Will Connors - 51

Chris Cosgrave - 95

Sean Cronin - 290

Max Deegan - 824

Brian Deeny - 95

Peter Dooley - 374

Caelan Doris - 838

Jack Dunne - 198

Cormac Foley - 99

Ciaran Frawley - 934

Tadhg Furlong - 454

Jamison Gibson-Park - 587

David Hawkshaw - 68

Cian Healy - 446

Robbie Henshaw - 559

Dave Kearney - 263

Hugo Keenan - 1,040

Ronan Kelleher - 466

Temi Lasisi - 1

Jordan Larmour - 648

Dan Leavy - 241

James Lowe - 855

Joe McCarthy - 394

Nick McCarthy - 294

John McKee - 119

Michael Milne - 12

Martin Molony - 172

Ross Molony - 1,389

Josh Murphy - 506

Luke McGrath - 916

Conor O’Brien - 66

Jimmy O’Brien - 1,103

Sean O’Brien - 19

Tommy O’Brien - 588

Rory O’Loughlin - 643

Max O’Reilly - 149

Jamie Osborne - 798

Scott Penny - 772

Andrew Porter - 587

Garry Ringrose - 996

Rhys Ruddock - 1,095

Rob Russell - 198

James Ryan - 368

Johnny Sexton - 502

Dan Sheehan - 485

Alex Soroka - 88

Devin Toner - 500

James Tracy - 519

Josh van der Flier - 929