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Sunday 22 September 2019

Cullen recalls lean times

St James Park reminds Cullen of the old times

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen

Everything good in this game is earned, not given, and it takes years.

There was a time, around the turn of this century, when Leinster were trampled on, not trampling all over Toulouse in the sunshine in Dublin.

Their coach Leo Cullen knows the good times came at a cost to many who never got to know the feeling of winning in Europe.

Denis Hickie. Reggie Corrigan. Victor Costello. Trevor Brennan. The list of fallen brothers is long and even distinguished.

The frustration of it all convinced Cullen to leave for two years to play at Leicester Tigers, then the flagship of English rugby from 2005 to 2007.

It was there the second row experienced the consistency of the culture that led to capturing the 2007 Premiership, while losing out to Wasps in the Heineken Cup final.

Maybe, that's why the three-time Heineken Cup winning captain never gets carried away on a wave of euphoria or presumption.

Still waters run deep in the mind and heart of Cullen.

The calm exterior disguises a passion for the game and for Leinster, in particular.

He was there through the bad times, when it was something to come away smiling from stadiums more empty than full.

That was certainly the case on January 8, 2002 when just 1,146 paying customers showed up to see Leinster outlast Newcastle Falcons 17-15 in Leeds.

The Heineken Pool match had been postponed twice before tries from Hickie and Cillian Willis made the vital difference.

"When we landed, we went to the ground. It was like concrete, with frost and snow around the place," recalled Cullen, about Kingston Park.

"The game got postponed by a day, so we stayed there for a night," he said.

There was even time for coach Matt Williams to give the nod to the players making their way to St James' Park, home to Newcastle United, where the Champions Cup final will take place in just under three weeks.

"We went to watch Newcastle play at St James' Park, I think against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup," said the coach.

Frustration

The chance to unwind was replaced with even more frustration 24 hours later.

"We were due to play the game on the Sunday. We were sitting in the team room in the hotel.

"Matt Williams came in and said, 'right, the game is off, we're heading off.'"

It was then all hell broke loose when Newcastle coach Rob Andrew accused Leinster of not wanting to play the game rather than following the protocols for player safety on a rock-hard pitch.

Leinster left in such a hurry that Cullen didn't even have time to change.

"I remember being on the plane on the way home, still strapped up because I hadn't taken it off my ankles.

"I was listening to Rob Andrew afterwards saying we had no intention of playing.

"You know, I was strapped up and clearly ready to play a match."

Leinster returned to the Emerald Stadium in Headingley on the Monday.

Afterwards, they flew straight from the game in England to the south of France in what was a cruel five-day turnaround at Stade Ernest Wallon.

"Where did we go afterwards? Toulouse straight from there. And got absolutely pumped.

"So that was my memory of Newcastle."

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