Leo Cullen: Isa Nacewa lifting Pro14 trophy was my season’s highlight
Leinster coach praises ‘irreplaceable’ captain after province secures a record fifth title
Leinster captain Isa Nacewa celebrates with his Leinster team-mates after beating Scarlets in the Pro14 final. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Rare ‘oul times in Dublin all right. Leinster signed off a perfect season and the career of perhaps their greatest ever servant in the ideal way and left no room for argument. The asterisk beside the 2017-18 season will forever belong to them, and, out on their own, them alone.
A record fifth title in this competition for the European champions thus completed the first double by a non-English or French side. Along the way they have beaten Saracens, last season’s European champions and this season’s English champions, Exeter, last season’s English champions and this season’s finalists, Montpellier, this season’s Top 14 finalists, their old foes Munster and on Saturday they ripped the Pro14 title from the Scarlets, last season’s champions, with a stunning 40-32 win.
Not a bad list of scalps, and on top of this, many of this remarkable group were bulk suppliers to an Irish Grand Slam.
Leinster’s ascent in becoming the best team in Europe is all the more remarkable given where they were two seasons ago, when they lost five of six pool games and were put to the sword in the final of this competition by Connacht in Murrayfield.
Thanking Matt O’Connor for bringing him aboard when he stopped playing, and Leinster for having given him the job at such a young age, Leo Cullen reflected on “a reasonably turbulent time” in admitting: “It’s been a rough ride at times, but very enjoyable at times.
“To see the work going in behind the scenes to get the club to this point, it probably makes it all a bit better in many ways. It hasn’t been straightforward. But I feel very lucky, there’s a huge amount of support behind the scenes, so much goes into it.
“All the families and friends that support us, it’s a unique thing with the provinces, you see the connection with the supporters that are there. It’s not stuff we make up, they live it more than anybody. When the team is not going well, you guys potentially write things that aren’t nice – they’re the ones who have to face it more. It’s easy for the players and staff to get on with things because they got on with it.
“One of the big things is the strong connections and the love that the team gets from everyone else. It’s an unbelievable reward and seeing Isa [Nacewa] lifting the trophy – that’s the highlight of my season. What a sign-off for him. He lasted less than 20 minutes but he was going to play regardless, whatever physical state he was in.”
Sadly, Nacewa’s calf gave way early on and he was gone by the end of the first quarter, Rory O’Loughlin seamlessly replacing him in tandem with Garry Ringrose, and word is that the 35-year-old is also bedevilled by knee and rib injuries.
“He’s in bits, yeah,” said Cullen cheerily. “He was hobbling on one leg. He’s literally glued together. He has unbelievable mental strength. I was talking to one of the players there who wasn’t playing today but he is a very experienced player as well, and he was just commenting on the mental strength of him. He’s inspirational to all of those young guys really. It’s a little bit irresponsible potentially, but you see him there at the end. That’s what it sometimes needs, it needs that level of sacrifice to achieve great things.”
As for replacing Nacewa, Cullen said: “It’s going to be tough, he’s irreplaceable in many ways. A lot of guys have to step up, that’s how you fill that role.”
When Cullen first stepped in to coaching he wasn’t sure if was doing the right thing, and even in the aftermath of this final he’s not sure if he’s doing the right thing.
“I still ask myself the question every day as I come in. It does take its toll; it’s part and parcel of it. The scrutiny is huge. I think of the other Irish coaches this year; I’m the only one left in situ, three have left for different reasons.
“That’s just part of the job spec. For every team going well, there’s another not going as well. When one team’s going well, another coach comes under pressure for his job. Not everyone is going well, not everyone can win. I feel for some of the other coaches who are out there, talking to them after their departures. It’s not a straightforward job,” he said ruefully, and then added in that smiling, deadpan manner of his: “We’ll enjoy today while we can.”
He and they deserve that much.