Rugby World Cup: Leo Cullen remembers ‘grieving’ after missing out

‘You go through all that grieving process. At some point you have to get to the acceptance phase’

The anatomy of non-selection; Kieran Marmion was angry, Rob Herring disappointed and Devin Toner, we’re not entirely sure. Empty, ravaged, gutted, probably a few expletives.

Leo Cullen knows. Time passing since the 2003 World Cup has hardened Cullen and also given him clarity. The obvious irony is he now makes similar calls to the one Joe Schimidt made a few weeks ago to Toner.

Cullen, also a second-row, remembers the phone call 16 years ago that he was convinced contained different news. He believed he would be travelling to the Australia Rugby World Cup. Within minutes of answering, his life’s ambition, like that of Toner, fell to rubble.

“You remember the matches you lose not the ones you win,” he quips.


The upside, he explains, is that the longer-term consequences of being crushed is in the hands of the player. But there is a page to turn and a process.

“The phone call 2003, I remember like it was yesterday. I was not expecting that phone call…I was not expecting that phone call. I was full sure I was going to the World Cup, and I was as upset as I’ve ever been. Couldn’t understand it for the life of me.

“You get angry, and you go through all that grieving process. At some point you have to get to the acceptance phase and move on. At some point it is going to stunt you. It is going to stunt you if you can’t get over that grieving cycle. It’s easier said than done. People deal with grief in many different ways. You go through that exact same cycle.”

In Toner’s mind his rugby career has slowed down or even stalled as Jean Kleyn’s gathered speed. As Cullen tells it, the cold comfort is that careers are in continuous motion. Nothing stands still. Four years later Cullen was again overlooked. But his expectation of what was coming was more grounded. Pragmatism had crept in.

“In 2007 I had the same exact disappointment. But I was expecting the call even though I got it incredibly late. That was the view I had then. I couldn’t deal with it in 2003. The shock...

“You get over it as quickly as you can, and don’t carry it around with you. It can be quite visible to people if you do start carrying it around. Just park it and focus. Get back playing. Blow it away in his next game. Play the house down.

Play well

“If something happens, something happens. I mean it’s a big ‘if’ isn’t it. No one wants to leave the World Cup, do they? It would be dragging them out of there. But for Dev [(TONER)]what can he control? He just needs to try and play well.”

As players get older it is important they don’t slow down, that they don’t try to manage themselves too much, says Cullen. The opposite of what they might think about age holds true. They need to hold their edge.

Toner is 33 years old. When Brad Thorn came to Leinster at “36 or 37”, says Cullen, he arrived to the pitch early, trained late. He had just come off winning the 2011 World Cup with New Zealand. But he didn’t allow it to lessen him. If there is an analogy perhaps it is to always be the best you can be.

But the report from Connacht was that their scrumhalf Marmion was angry more than frustrated or disappointed, while Herring suffered a mitigating injury. But Cullen insists there has to be finality. There has to be an exit strategy.

“Anger, yeah, Anger disappointment…I think when you deal with some sort of adversity you need to channel it in a positive way. There are guys that are picked ahead of you. That’s always the great complication.

“Just because there is a pecking order in the national team, once you step on the grass and you are playing a provincial game the match-up doesn’t matter. They just want to go out and win the day. Win the day and they think they have a chance of winning the next election.”

It holds. If you are three years old or 33.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times