Cullen plots a steady course to calmer wa­ters

Le­in­ster’s head coach has over­come a tur­bu­lent start to prove his met­tle in spec­tac­u­lar style

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP - Gavin Cum­miskey

“We farmed in New­town­moun­tkennedy and I’d be mov­ing ponies or sheep and I’d ask Leo, from a young age, to give me a hand. He al­ways said yes but he wasn’t much as­sis­tance most of the time. He’d dis­ap­pear and then reap­pear with a rugby ball in his hand. He’d ig­nore me in favour of the ball; chas­ing it, bounc­ing it, kick­ing it. That would be the start of my mem­ory of the rugby, rugby, rugby. No mat­ter what he did he had a ball in his hand or on the end of his foot.” – Paula Cullen, mother, speak­ing at a lunch along­side Brian O’Driscoll’s par­ents be­fore both men re­tired in 2014.

This month three years ago Le­in­ster and their young head coach stalled at an omi­nous cross­roads: Leo Cullen’s legacy, it was noted, would be com­pa­ra­ble ei­ther to Brian Cody’s un­end­ing ten­ure with the Kilkenny hurlers or Steve Staunton’s chaotic stint as Repub­lic of Ire­land man­ager.As Christ­mas 2015 washed over the rugby land­scape his ap­point­ment looked pre­ma­ture, ill-ad­vised even. The Staunton par­al­lels seemed apt as he be­came in­creas­ingly irate with the line of ques­tion­ing fol­low­ing each de­feat.

Great player, poor man­ager was the easy nar­ra­tive based on four pound­ings – Wasps, Bath and Toulon twice – in Europe.

Cullen sought as­sur­ances, took se­lec­tion risks and let a sea­son slide past with­out sil­ver­ware (Con­nacht fa­mously beat­ing Le­in­ster in the Pro12 fi­nal).

The im­pres­sion hard­ened that Cullen, Gir­van Dempsey and the rest were out of their depth. Now, the 40-year-old is front of house spokesman, back of­fice grinder and so much more be­sides. Don’t take our word for it. “The head coach is the key re­ally,” Le­in­ster op­er­a­tions chief Guy Easterby told The Ir­ish Times in Oc­to­ber. “Leo is the fig­ure­head of the or­gan­i­sa­tion. He is in the me­dia ev­ery week. Why wouldn’t the head per­son want to be on top of ev­ery­thing?”

The Le­in­ster hier­ar­chy re­mains suit­ably vague. What we know is only what we see and are told. Easterby ne­go­ti­ates player con­tracts. Mick Daw­son is CEO. Peter Smyth runs the acad­emy. The game plan is de­signed by Stu­art Lan­caster with Felipe Con­tepomi’s ar­rival hav­ing a suc­ces­sion feel should the English­man be lured home or he should he fol­low Joe Schmidt’s path into the na­tional for­est.

Cullen does coach, his ob­vi­ous area of ex­per­tise be­ing the li­ne­out, but most of his time is con­sumed by over­see­ing “ev­ery­thing”. This is the les­son learned af­ter sur­viv­ing the tu­mul­tuous sea­son that fol­lowed an enor­mous risk Daw­son and the board took in the sum­mer of 2015: the sack­ing of Mat­tie O’Con­nor.

That de­ci­sion left Cullen’s ca­reer in rugby and Le­in­ster’s po­ten­tial to re­gen­er­ate on a knife edge. No­body else would take the job on such short no­tice. Cullen stepped up know­ing full well he was not ready and see­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties down in Mun­ster.

Knee-jerk call

Le­in­ster and Mun­ster were both, sud­denly, all-Ir­ish coach­ing tick­ets with Kurt McQuilkin – a Kiwi by birth but an Ire­land in­ter­na­tional by the grace of res­i­dency – the se­nior fig­ure in a very cal­low group.

Mun­ster’s mas­ter plan failed abysmally. Deep-rooted problems were ev­i­dent due to an in­abil­ity to bring play­ers through from clubs and schools. At least Le­in­ster knew what was com­ing. There are well-doc­u­mented fi­nan­cial problems in Mun­ster but Rassie Eras­mus ar­rived for a sin­gle sea­son to sketch the blue­print of mod­ern suc­cess.

Le­in­ster and Cullen looked and learned but they were left flap­ping in the wind post the 2015 World Cup by what seemed a knee-jerk call to re­move O’Con­nor. Ev­ery­one looks like a ge­nius now, but the open­ing four rounds of 2015/16 Cham­pi­ons Cup were grim and the fig­ure­head of the or­gan­i­sa­tion was in the me­dia ev­ery week with the same un­con­vinc­ing mes­sage. He per­se­vered but each in­ter­ac­tion ex­posed his in­ex­pe­ri­ence.

He is hardly naive re­gard­ing such sit­u­a­tions as his fa­ther, Frank, formed Cullen Com­mu­ni­ca­tions in 1985, where younger brother Owen is now man­ag­ing di­rec­tor.

“It was only six or seven games in at that stage [as a head coach],” Cullen laughed about re­turn­ing this af­ter­noon to face Bath at The Rec. “It takes a while to change, it takes a while and you guys aren’t al­ways that pa­tient. You ex­pect it [suc­cess] straight away, but it takes a bit longer.”

He ex­udes control be­cause the re­cov­ery to this point in­side three sea­sons has been noth­ing short of sen­sa­tional.

Cullen and Johnny Sex­ton were two of a hand­ful of peo­ple who firmly be­lieved Lan­caster was a great rather than good coach. How wrong the English me­dia, RFU and play­ers proved to be. But it was Cullen who sought help when McQuilkin re­turned home dur­ing the 2016 pre­sea­son. He had trusted Black­rock team-mates, Smyth and Em­met Far­rell, in staff jobs but the need for a coach ca­pa­ble of mak­ing world class play­ers bet­ter was stark.

Schmidt be­ing the stan­dard, en­quiries were made about Tony Brown, the for­mer All Black out­half who is com­pared to a young Schmidt in New Zealand, but he fol­lowed Jamie Joseph into the Ja­panese pro­ject.

Great lead­ers are nat­u­ral del­e­ga­tors. As Cullen was learn­ing other tools of his trade – hav­ing been fast-tracked straight from player to for­wards coach and within a year to over­lord of Le­in­ster’s for­tunes – Lan­caster in­stantly made the team bet­ter. Mend­ing strained re­la­tions with Schmidt and David Nu­ci­fora – O’Con­nor’s part­ing gift – made Ir­ish rugby more stream­lined.

Poi­soned chal­ice

Con­trol­ling the mes­sage, week upon mis­er­able week, took heat off oth­ers but the coach’s job in rugby nowa­days looks like a poi­soned chal­ice. Even Schmidt walks away in 11 months time for a sin­gu­lar rea­son – to see his fam­ily.

“What I re­ally miss is the 6.30am ar­rival into Le­in­ster ev­ery morn­ing,” said Isa Nacewa, “walk­ing straight into Leo’s of­fice to chew the fat. He was al­ways there. Peo­ple are see­ing Leo Cullen ma­ture into a top coach but he was ex­actly the same per­son three years ago.

“To me, his per­spec­tive on the game, that abil­ity to see the big pic­ture, was ev­i­dent when he was be­ing ham­mered in the me­dia af­ter de­feats to Toulon in his first sea­son in charge. Leo stayed the course, know­ing what tal­ent was com­ing through, what ad­di­tional coach­ing el­e­ments the club re­quired and how a unique en­vi­ron­ment like Le­in­ster is al­ways go­ing to strug­gle post World Cup.

“The same Leo could be found be­hind his desk af­ter those ag­o­nis­ing semi-fi­nal de­feats [in 2017] as he was a few days af­ter re­turn­ing from Bil­bao with the Euro­pean Cup. Same man adapt­ing to sit­u­a­tions and plan­ning ahead. Be­fore most peo­ple wake, Leo is work­ing away on what’s best for Le­in­ster Rugby but peo­ple don’t see that. How could they?”

Rugby, rugby, rugby. Cullen keeps his cir­cle of trust Robert de Niro tight, that’s al­ways been his way, so this week’s painkiller rev­e­la­tions clearly an­noyed him.

“Thanks Drico,” he sar­cas­ti­cally de­clared af­ter the me­dia briefing was not dom­i­nated by his favourite fil­i­buster, se­lec­tion headaches, but a team-mate since they were teenagers spilling the beans on mass con­sump­tion of Difene and co-co­damol pills by “mostly se­nior play­ers” up to 2014.

Ev­ery medal Brian O’Driscoll won with Black­rock and Le­in­ster was along­side Cullen. One of them is a for­mer player who coaches, the other a for­mer player now en­trenched in the me­dia. Cullen made the dif­fer­ence very clear when coolly steer­ing the most suc­cess­ful or­gan­i­sa­tion in the his­tory of North­ern Hemi­sphere rugby out of choppy mid­week wa­ters.

“I was never a fan of tak­ing med­i­ca­tion . . .” be­gan a ro­bust de­fence of the Le­in­ster med­i­cal depart­ment. “To say there is an im­age of med­i­ca­tion be­ing handed out wily-nilly, I think that is a very un­fair re­flec­tion on the en­vi­ron­ment we have here at the mo­ment, and that’s all I’m re­ally con­cerned about – the en­vi­ron­ment we have here at the mo­ment. I’m not in­ter­ested in drag­ging up things from the past.”

Of course, he re­mem­bers De­cem­ber 2015 like the liv­ing night­mare it be­came, be­cause the past is where his wis­dom, al­ways far be­yond his years, is rooted.

In Black­rock this un­usu­ally tall but skinny haze of blonde could be picked out across the acres of grass. Cullen was a dy­namic num­ber eight un­til height and ca­reer longevity forced him into the sec­ond row. He wasn’t al­ways the cap­tain but by Ire­land U-21s a nat­u­ral leader of men had emerged. A few sea­sons in the slip­stream of Martin Johnson’s dom­i­nant Le­ices­ter Tigers era pol­ished the sculp­ture.

Home he came to Le­in­ster and so be­gan the tro­phy gath­er­ing (just af­ter he be­came club cap­tain when Michael Cheika felt it wasn’t fea­si­ble for O’Driscoll to bal­ance na­tional and pro­vin­cial lead­er­ship roles).

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the dip in Le­in­ster for­tunes co­in­cided with Cullen up­skilling on the art of mid­dle man­age­ment; a prob­lem solver for mod­ern Le­in­ster in its cur­rent shin­ing glory.

“The group is so dif­fer­ent now and in such a dif­fer­ent place,” he smiled when 2015 was brought up, com­fort­able in the Cody, rather than Stan, per­sona.

“It’s hard to com­pare but al­ways worth re­mem­ber­ing. Cer­tainly, I re­mem­ber those days well.”

It takes a while to change, it takes a while and you guys aren’t al­ways that pa­tient. You ex­pect [suc­cess] straight away, but it takes a bit longer

PHO­TO­GRAPH: OISIN KENIRY/INPHO

“Peo­ple are see­ing Leo Cullen ma­ture into a top coach but he was ex­actly the same per­son three years ago,” says for­mer star Isa Nacewa.

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