Monday 24 June 2019

Leo had to be brave - now he's reaping rewards

Coach's ability to put club ahead of his own career is key to revolution

MASTER PLAN: Leo Cullen in conversation with Jonathan Sexton during training at UCD in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
MASTER PLAN: Leo Cullen in conversation with Jonathan Sexton during training at UCD in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Three years can be a career in this game.

This goes for the coaches even more than it does for the players.

In November of 2015, Leo Cullen was barely a wet week into his new role as Leinster head coach.

In May of the same year, the three-time Heineken Cup winning captain was just getting to grips with his responsibility as the forwards coach when Matt O'Connor got the bullet.

The search for O'Connor's successor stretched far and, ultimately, wide of the mark.

The truth is that the best job in club rugby had turned into a poisoned chalice.

The spats between O'Connor and the IRFU had made headlines, as the Australian felt he was being asked to work with his hands tied behind his back due to the regular requests around the Player Welfare Programme.


He couldn't do it his way and in an Irish industry where so much of what happens is done behind closed doors, O'Connor had the mettle to stand up where others kept their counsel.

The problem for Leinster, when they trawled through the worldwide coaching nets, was that they came up empty handed.

Boxed into a corner, they turned to Cullen as the saviour. It was too much, too soon.

Just like the first round of the European Cup.

Leinster, already without Rob Kearney, Rhys Ruddock, Luke Fitzgerald and Ben Te'o, lost captain Isa Nacewa just before the kick-off against Wasps at The RDS.

They charged into a stonewall Wasps defence and were gutted by breakaway tries from Christian Wade, Joe Simpson and Charles Piutau in an appalling 33-6 defeat.

"We have a mountain to climb. It leaves us scrambling," assessed a shell-shocked Cullen in the aftermath.

"There is a lot of dejection in the changing room. Across the board that level of performance is unacceptable."

It was the beginning of the early end to Leinster's campaign, leading to four straight losses.

By the time the fifth round came around, Cullen had decided to look to the future.

Tadhg Furlong, Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath, James Tracy, Peter Dooley and Ross Molony were all given their first European Cup starts in January 2016.

These were the seeds sown for what was to happen over the next 28 months.

Three years later, Eoin Reddan, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Mike McCarthy and Jamie Heaslip have all retired.

Ian Madigan and Zane Kirchner are at Bristol Bears and Jordi Murphy is up the road in Ulster.

The natural instinct of a coach, especially one new to the responsibility, is to point the finger at others in an act of self-preservation.

A natural leader, Cullen knew he was a victim of poor planning and his own love of the club.

He simply couldn't say no to Leinster.

The rehabilitation process had already begun with the return of Jonathan Sexton.

It was accelerated by Leinster's shattering defeat to Connacht in the 2016 PRO12 League final.

Cullen knew he needed help. He did not have to be pushed into looking for an experienced head.

He drove the recruitment of former England head coach Stuart Lancaster in what has proved to be a master stroke.

The absence of ego on Cullen's part allowed Lancaster the room to take over the lead role on the pitch.

It has been onwards and upwards ever since.

Lancaster, driven by a desire to repair his tattered reputation, started out with tightening up the defence.

Even then, Scarlets delivered the message 'you're not there yet' in the 2017 League semi-final at The RDS.

The Cumbrian immediately impressed with his eye for detail and energy to play the 'Leinster Way'.

Last season, the signings of Scott Fardy and James Lowe didn't hurt the process.

The move for Robbie Henshaw and the Lions status of Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Sean O'Brien, Henshaw and Jack McGrath were incremental steps in rebuilding the culture.

The rejuvenation of Cian Healy, the emergence of James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour, and the blossoming of Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne were reasons to believe again.

It all came together in fabulous fashion to deliver an unprecedented double last season.

The genesis for change all started from the fallout of that day against Wasps, spiralling down into five defeats from six rounds in Europe to convince Cullen he needed to make changes - or he would be gone.

The fact Cullen's underlying loyalty leaned more to Leinster than his own career is the greatest measure of a man without ego.

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