Skipper Cullen revels in gritty Leinster work ethic
Perpignan in 2003. Leicester two years later. The season in between when Leinster sank without trace in the pool stages. Leo Cullen hasn’t forgotten. The list of bad old days trips off his tongue like the lines from his favourite song.
By 2005, he had served the province for eight years and grown tired of defeats he labelled on Saturday as “embarrassing” and “amateurish”. By the time he upped and left for Leicester, there was no one at the helm at all after Declan Kidney’s return to Munster.
What made it worse was the fact that they thought they had it cracked. A Celtic League win under Matt Williams in 2002 seemed to herald the dawn of an era stocked with even greater riches but it proved instead to be a mirage.
“I thought we’d push on then, I thought it was a done deal. Obviously then we crashed out of Europe, pretty embarrassingly on a few occasions. It wasn’t pretty, and [in 2005] I didn’t really see how the team was going to be successful in the immediate future.
“We were on the back of our fourth coach when I decided to leave. I was hungry to be with a successful team and there was no coach in Leinster at that stage. Declan [Kidney] had gone back to Munster and Gary [Ella] was in for a year before him.”
Leicester at the time were everything that Leinster were not: teak-tough, ruthless and, above all, winners. Cullen helped them to a league and cup during his two-year stint at Welford Road — but Leinster was an itch that still needed scratching.
His return home in 2007 coincided with the arrival of Michael Cheika, who proved to be the right man in the right place at the right time. The Australian coach instilled a new ethos and brought in players from overseas to help him do it.
Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde were untarnished by the failures of the past and the defining image of the new Leinster was that ugly 6-5 win away to Harlequins in the quarter-final of the 2009 European Cup.
Gone was the flamboyant but flighty team that could hammer Toulouse in the south of France one day and be totally psyched out of a staring match by Munster the next. They discovered grit and the road to their first title in ’09 was paved with it.
Cullen admits they weren’t pulling up many trees in terms of their playing style back then and, though they have evolved into an all-round team of many mutually beneficial talents since, the culture remains as uncompromising as it was under Cheika.
“We had to kick on from  and the guys have worked really hard in the academy.
“And we’re blessed with the competitions we have at underage level in Leinster schools and youths. A lot of credit has to go to everyone involved in those competitions as well because it breeds good-quality players and guys who are competitive.”
Gone are the days when Leinster leaned so heavily on the likes of Elsom but they continue to make smart moves, none more so than their capture of Brad Thorn on a three-month deal when Cullen was pencilled in for surgery.
The Kiwi has played for the best clubs and nations in both codes and won everything there is to win which makes him ideally positioned to sum up just what it is that oils this Leinster machine.
“There are fundamentals. Like caring for one another. That’s a big one. Over the course of a season there are going to be a lot of tough ones like against Clermont. You saw in the last five or 10 minutes when we just had to put our bodies on the line for each other and even then they got over but they didn’t get the ball down. It could have been different.
“So you have to care about your mates. Work ethic. Discipline. Sacrifice. Humility. Being smart. Passionate. All those things. They’re great words and it’s easy to say them, but it’s a challenge to live by them. Leinster live [by] them and when I was a player with the Broncos, Crusaders and All-Blacks, they lived [by] them too.”
Thorn’s contract is up after next week’s Pro12 final against Ospreys but Leinster will absorb his departure as they did that of Elsom and others. New arrivals no longer have to help foster an ethos, they must simply buy into the one already there.
Times have certainly changed.
© This appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Monday, May 21, 2012