‘That was as ner­vous as I have ever been be­fore a game’ – Cullen

Two years ago this week Le­in­ster’s coach rolled the dice in giv­ing five play­ers their first Euro­pean start

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gavin Cum­miskey

No­body is com­par­ing the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots to lit­tle old Le­in­ster but the dy­nas­tic NFL fran­chise pro­vide the ul­ti­mate marker for all and any sport­ing op­er­a­tion.

The Robert Kraft (owner) –Bill Belichick (coach) – Tom Brady (quar­ter­back) tri­umvi­rate shows signs of crack­ing, ac­cord­ing to ESPN sources, over 40-year-old Brady’s train­ing method­ol­ogy. These are heavy­weight egos. This could be a me­dia cam­paign to stymie ut­ter dom­i­na­tion or a fact-based in­evitabil­ity. Prob­a­bly a bit of both.

Past re­ac­tions tells us this can only har­den in­ter­nal re­solve as the AFC con­fer­ence fi­nal looms.

Le­in­ster, like any suc­cess­ful sports club, also need an axe to con­stantly grind. Any slight will do.

Still, Leo Cullen was in cheer­ful form at Fri­day’s press con­fer­ence ahead of a weak­ened Glas­gow’s visit to the RDS on Sun­day (per­haps it was his turn­ing 40 last Mon­day).

Re­as­sur­ingly, Cullen’s spiky me­dia per­sona briefly reared its head to fan the flames. Two years ago his coach­ing cre­den­tials were placed un­der se­ri­ous scru­tiny. Le­in­ster trudged into Jan­uary al­ready knocked out of Europe by the weight of Toulon blows. The rookie coach flung the dice against a Bath side lit­tered with Eng­land in­ter­na­tion­als. Garry Rin­grose, Luke McGrath, Tadhg Fur­long, Ross Molony, Peter Doo­ley, Ian Madi­gan and Josh van der Flier started.

“When the teams were an­nounced I re­mem­ber read­ing com­ments about how I was dis­re­spect­ing the com­pe­ti­tion for pick­ing young play­ers for their first starts in Europe,” said Cullen. “The fol­low­ing Novem­ber five got capped for Ire­land.”

With the pres­sure valve ever tight­en­ing as Cullen at­tempted to steady a creak­ing ship af­ter the knee-jerk dis­missal of Matt O’Con­nor, the risk seemed enor­mous.

“That was as ner­vous as I have ever been be­fore a game as a coach or as a player. How those young guys go is im­por­tant to me and to the club. We want to try and do what’s right by them. It’s great to see the pro­gres­sion of those play­ers.”

Cullen held his nerve. The boys were re­ally men. Le­in­ster won 25-11.

Stu­art Lan­caster’s ar­rival has light­ened the bur­den but these de­ci­sions refuse to go away; form ver­sus rep­u­ta­tion is a con­stant de­bate at Le­in­ster.

Good­luck

Jor­dan Lar­mour start­ing full­back over Rob Kear­ney gets scribbled down as a chang­ing of the guard. Or it’s ro­ta­tion. Prob­a­bly a bit of both.

Re­ally, it’s Fer­gus McFad­den’s fault – see his two-try show­ing against Ul­ster – with Kear­ney ex­pected to re­turn for next week’s jour­ney to Mont­pel­lier.

Of course Kear­ney once was Lar­mour. Just ask Gir­van Dempsey, who was once the all-see­ing Le­in­ster and Ire­land 15. Kear­ney ar­rived straight out of Clon­gowes Wood Col­lege as a phys­i­cal spec­i­men primed for the pro­fes­sional game. Dif­fer­ent skill set to Lar­mour’s – less pace, more aerial supremacy – but the same po­ten­tial.

Iron­i­cally, Adam Byrne – fac­ing a long lay off due to a knee prob­lem suf­fered against Ar­gentina on his Ire­land de­but – was due to wear 14, and not McFad­den, against Ul­ster. Good and bad luck still play a mas­sive role.

Lar­mour is in sen­sa­tional form but Kear­ney looks cer­tain to be the Ire­land full­back in Paris. Jared Payne’s strug­gle with mi­graines since the sum­mer saw the 31-year-old re­claim the 15 jersey in Novem­ber fol­low­ing his lat­est in­jury lay-off.

Still, imag­ine telling Kear­ney he was not run­ning from full­back this past week.

“There were a few tough calls,” Cullen dryly replied. Whither Joey Car­bery? Car­bery be­ing Jor­dan Lar­mour, be­fore Garry Rin­grose was Car­bery; the lat­est sen­sa­tion burst­ing from the schools sys­tem. It’s un­end­ing, so a ridicu­lous co­nun­drum is promised when all of them are healthy, which will even­tu­ally hap­pen.

Kear­ney is the only es­tab­lished, and fit, Ire­land in­ter­na­tional not start­ing to­mor­row. Jordi Mur­phy edges out Dan Leavy at blind­side but the lat­ter is just back from in­jury. Same goes for Car­bery who togs as the 24th man.

Un­ques­tion­ably, this team was picked on form (see the line-up for Mont­pel­lier for fur­ther proof).

Maybe Le­in­ster will have to trade Car­bery to Ul­ster and Lar­mour to Mun­ster – like Kraft/Belichick had to do with Jimmy Garop­polo to the San Fran­ciso 49ers to keep Brady happy. For­get about such moves from Mick Dawson to keep Kear­ney and Sex­ton brim­ming. Rugby isn’t any­where near that glass ceil­ing.

Gor­don D’arcy wrote about then and now in his col­umn. Back in the day the pri­mary mes­sage at this junc­ture of the sea­son was: ‘Don’t f**k up Jan­uary.’ That still res­onates but seems un­fath­omable in the cur­rent cli­mate of riches. Es­pe­cially with Glas­gow land­ing with­out Finn Rus­sell, Stu­art Hogg, Zan­der Fager­son and Jonny Gray.

Good­en­vi­ron­ment

An­other dif­fer­ence be­tween the past and present is a few good in­di­vid­ual per­for­mances for Le­in­ster tends to cat­a­pult a player onto the Six Na­tions plat­form.

“One of the things that re­ally stands out for me is the amount of young guys that have been capped and stepped up in the last 18 months to two years,” said Isa Nacewa, a handy cen­tre op­tion to­mor­row as Rin­grose is crocked.

“When I came here in 2008 there was the likes of Fer­gus McFad­den, Rhys Rud­dock, Do­minic Ryan, Eoin O’Mal­ley, guys that were young at the time who re­ally stepped up and there has been a mas­sive in­flux in the last two-to-three years of guys com­ing out of the Academy and the dy­nam­ics of the team has changed.

“There’s not too many old heads any more, there’s a lot of young guys that have been given an op­por­tu­nity and taken it. That’s a good en­vi­ron­ment to be a step­ping-stone to­wards.”

That brings us back to Lar­mour step ston­ing past ev­ery de­fender he met over Christ­mas.

“Jor­dan is just fun to play with,” Nacewa con­tin­ued. “He wasn’t here dur­ing the suc­cess­ful times of Le­in­ster’s past and I think that’s a good thing be­cause he doesn’t have any bound­aries in the way he thinks. He is get­ting out there, en­joy­ing him­self, and play­ing his style of rugby and he has played bloody well and we just feed off that and leave the se­lec­tion to the big dogs and then we just get on with it.

Same im­print

“He has got a re­ally canny abil­ity to keep his high speed when side-step­ping off ei­ther foot. You don’t see that in ev­ery player so when he can do that sim­i­lar to the try scored in Mun­ster that’s a pretty spe­cial tal­ent to have.

“When he first came on board, he looked like an out and out fin­isher, that knew how to get to the try line, and I think the coaches have done a su­perb job in manag­ing him. He’s been in­volved in the Dragons game, the first game of the sea­son, and scored a great try, and he’s just got bet­ter ev­ery week. He works hard, off the field as well, with the coaches, in the anal­y­sis room, he’s al­ways try­ing to im­prove, which is a good qual­ity to have.” Is he the next . . .? “I don’t want force him into any box, he’s just do­ing things his own way, and that’s the beauty about him.”

Nacewa could be de­scrib­ing Rob Kear­ney from 2005, or 2009 when Nacewa kept him and Dempsey out of the Heineken Cup fi­nal side, or as re­cently as Novem­ber 2017.

Same im­print on the can­vas.

I re­mem­ber read­ing com­ments about how I was dis­re­spect­ing the com­pe­ti­tion for pick­ing young play­ers for their first starts in Europe. The fol­low­ing Novem­ber five got capped for Ire­land

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GARY Garry Rin­grose was one of five young Le­in­ster play­ers who were handed their Euro­pean de­buts against Bath at the RDS two years ago. Inset: Le­in­ster head coach Leo Cullen.

CARR/IN­PHO

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