Peter Smyth, a team-mate of Leo Cullen's from their under-10 days at Willow Park through their years together on the Blackrock Dream Team and then Leinster, tells a story about the man who will forever remain the only captain to have lifted three Heineken Cups.
Smyth, now a teacher and coach at Blackrock, invited Cullen up to speak to his senior squad before they played St Michael's in the Leinster Schools Cup final in March of last year. Wanting to draw some relevant advice from Leinster beating Ulster in the all-Irish Heineken Cup final of 2012, he asked Cullen how they coped with the emotions of playing neighbours and rivals in a final.
Cullen recounted the words of Brad Thorn when standing up at a squad meeting in the build-up to the game: "Listen, lads, it's not about neighbours, it's not about the rivalry, it's about being completely focused, just being a machine and concentrating on your job. Don't get caught up in anything else."
'Just focus on your job'
Smyth adds: "So Leo, a three-time Heineken Cup winning captain, said to the lads: 'Just focus in on your job. Nothing else matters. Don't worry about the result or anything else. You're a machine'.
“And that’s Leo. Often you’d speak to Leo before a game and he’d look at you, and Leo had this stare, and straight away you’d know ‘I probably shouldn’t have said that’.
“Because for him nothing else mattered other than doing your job, and he always knew his job. I suppose that’s what’s given him his longevity and that’s why he’s so highly thought of within the game.
“He doesn’t get involved in sideshows. For him it’s a rugby pitch, there’s a game plan and now we’ve got to go and execute.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Leinster eventually became a Machine under Leo the Machine.
Smyth cannot recall Cullen ever losing his composure in a game or joining in the dressingroom ranting and raving, instead cutting straight to the chase with relevant points.
It was this calmness under pressure which invariably made him make right calls during games.
Ironically, the only team he didn't captain was that Dream Team which won a Junior Cup, two Senior Cups (1995 and '96), two McCorry Cups, two JP Fanagan Cups and two All-Ireland Under-20 Cups. In a team also featuring Bob Casey, David Quinlan and Tom Keating, that job fell to Barry Gibney, from whom Smyth reckons Cullen learned plenty.
In latter years, perhaps, Cullen wouldn’t have been known for his athleticism across the ground, whatever about in the air, but back then he was a number eight.
“Leo was always in the top 20 per cent for speed tests,” says Smyth. “With his size and stride, he was quite quick, and once he was away he was gone.”
In his first year out of school Cullen broke into the Irish under-21 team and in his second he made his Leinster debut as a replacement for Victor Costello in a 24-23 defeat away to Connacht, and it was Costello's presence prompted Mike Ruddock to convert Cullen into a lock.
Phase one of Cullen's Leinster career (1998 to 2005) was largely frustrating, despite the Celtic League triumph of 2002 under Matt Williams. Like O'Driscoll, whose career ran virtually parallel, Cullen has suffered the lean times through to the times of bounty.
“It’s so long ago. I can barely remember what happened last week,” Cullen recalled this week with a smile. “It was a funny period. I think Irish rugby took a while to understand what professionalism was and trying to get what the working week was and how much training you did.
“The bad days are all muddled together. But, the one that stands out most of all was that Perpignan semi-final in 2003. We were in Lansdowne Road. We had beaten Biarritz in the quarters. It was set up. The final was going to be in Lansdowne as well.
“I look back on that week and we just weren’t able to cope. We didn’t know what was the right thing to do. We got into a mind frame of ‘let’s try to cover everything’ that week.
“I remember there were guys going down injured in training just because we were overloading. We hadn’t been through that process before. By the time the game came around, we were just so flat as a group and completely under-performed.
“That was the one day that sticks out as probably worse than any other. That whole period, for me, was just jumbled together in that one day.”
It culminated in Cullen and Shane Jennings departing to Leicester for two years (2005 to 2007), where he played 56 games, winning a Premiership and EDF Energy Cup before the Tigers were denied a hat-trick in the Heineken Cup final by Wasps.
Gary Ella had been and gone, and Declan Kidney was on his way back to Munster, each after one season with Leinster.
"When I left in 2005, Leinster didn't have a coach. I happened to be out of contract. We'd just been beaten by Munster in the semi-final of that Celtic Cup, I think it was at the time. Dave Horwill got sent-off. I got a phone call on Monday: 'Would I be interested in going there?' It was literally 48 hours. It was hard to see at the time what was going to happen at Leinster."
He'd played against a Newbridge team featuring Geordan Murphy in the 1996 Leinster Schools final and had spoken to Bob Dwyer about joining Leicester when he was 19.
“Also, my Irish career had faltered as well. I just needed to change something up. I was 27. I felt I needed to reinvent myself. The way things were going my career felt like it was fizzling out a little bit. Even though I felt a big part of Leinster at the time and it was a hard thing to do, I moved on.”
Impressed by Michael Cheika's achievement in getting Leinster to a Heineken Cup semi-final in his first season at the helm, Cullen made the prodigal return in 2007-08, when they won the Magners League.
The following season he inherited the captaincy from O’Driscoll for the first of Leinster’s three Heineken Cups.
"When he [Cheika] took over it was pretty shambolic. "The rats leaving the sinking ship" was the slagging everyone was getting at the time. He put his stamp on it, got the type of player he wanted, moved out the type of players he didn't want. A lot of it comes down to him, to tell you the truth.
Backing his players
"You came up with an idea with Cheiks and he would jump on board straight away. He was very good at backing his players. If they had an idea he wanted to be part of it, to make it happen. It was important having a guy like that there at the time.
“He just wanted to get things done. He didn’t care who he upset on his way to getting there but he got there. That’s what Leinster needed more than anything else so Cheiks should take a big pat on the back for this one.”
As well as three Heineken Cups, there have been three league titles in its Celtic/Magners and Rabo Pro12 guises, a European Challenge Cup, that Premiership title and EDF Energy Cup medal. If there are regrets over the course of a 16-year career which has featured 304 first-class games with Leinster, Leicester and Ireland, one ventures they are more to do with a stop-start international career which yielded 32 caps.
“I try not to live too much with regrets. Stuff happens. You just try to learn lessons and move on to the next thing. I’ve had more good days than bad.
“I’ve been pretty lucky. I’m 36 and I know guys from when I was younger who were probably a hell of a lot more talented than I was,” he says, even venturing he’d have picked six or seven players ahead of O’Driscoll at school as potential stars.
“I was playing with guys who were pretty exceptionally gifted players and had the drive and the will as well. Injuries just struck them down when they were younger. Ciarán Scally was someone who had played for Ireland young and was retired at 21, 22, and the likes of Barry Gibney, Peter Smyth, all those guys.
“Bob [Casey] went on to play for Ireland and had a great career for London Irish but there were heaps of other guys all through that period. That’s the way it goes. I think I’ve done all right. Could have done more but we haven’t so just move on to the next thing and try to embrace that.”
For him that will be coaching the Leinster forwards from next season.
“Producing players for Ireland is the most important thing, I think, for me as a coach going forward because you want guys that are able to play not just for Leinster – that’s very important – but you want to produce guys beyond that.”
For all the increased financial muscle of the French and English clubs, Cullen believes the Irish system can be more disposed toward the long-term development of players.
“We want to nurture a guy through, give him the right experience so that when it comes to later in his career, he’s actually got the building blocks to be a world-class player.
“We’ve got small resources in this country so we need to manage them to the best of our ability.”
No better man.