Pub quiz time — what have Royce Burke-Flynn and Roman Salanoa got in common?
Take your time, this is no trick question, but nor is it a gimme. You might have hit upon the fact they both played for Leinster by now, but the more precise response is they are the first and last players given their debut by Leo Cullen.
‘Last’, in this instance, means latest, since it almost goes without saying a few more will be given their opportunity to shine before the season ends.
The follow on poser; how many debutants have there been in total during the former second row’s four and a half seasons in charge?
Burke-Flynn was number one and just before Christmas young Tommy O’Brien was number 50, when he started against Ulster. Salanoa?
A late withdrawal gave the young prop an unexpected push into the same squad that night in the RDS and the Hawaii-born 22-year-old became number 51.
“Fifty one?” laughed Cullen, when the figure was put to him.
Bringing them through is one thing, winning is quite another. It’s even more impressive when you consider where Leinster were when Cullen was promoted to the role of head coach after Matt O’Connor’s departure in 2015.
Cullen may have had 221 caps for the province and led them to three Heineken Cup titles as captain, but none of that would help him if things went awry as coach.
“It’s going to be really difficult,” said Devin Toner, before he and many others left for the 2015 World Cup, leaving Cullen light on experience when he most needed it. “We know we need to build on last year because it just wasn’t good enough.”
The year before? Leinster lost a dramatic Champions Cup semi-final to eventual winners Toulon, in extra time, but they failed to qualify for the PRO12 play-offs, winning just 11 of their 22 regular-season games. It wasn’t close to good enough.
With the World Cup on the horizon, and IRFU high performance director David Nucifora taking time to be convinced by Cullen’s credentials, things looked bleak. But the club legend was given the nod, even if he later stated, with some dark humour, that “nobody else wanted” the job.
The task was a big one, but Cullen embraced it, and embraced the promotion of youth in a serious way.
Burke-Flynn was the first debutant, second row Ross Molony the second, and Ross Byrne, all making appearances off the bench in a defeat to Edinburgh in Meggetland in September 2015, was the third.
Garry Ringrose was an unused replacement in Scotland, but he got the nod a week later against Cardiff, and so the conveyor belt began to whirr.
A few months later, after a humbling European exit after just four pool games, Cullen twisted again. Four straight defeats had ended their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages, and the head coach again looked to the future.
Ringrose, Molony, Luke McGrath, Peter Dooley, James Tracy along with Tadhg Furlong were handed European debuts.
Flicking through the 51 given their chance by Cullen, some have already departed, but there are also already world class players, Test level players and players who promise to deliver both — in time.
But there’s another set of fingerprints on the blueprint that’s taken Leinster from 2015’s fifth place PRO12 finish, to back-to-back titles and favourites for a third in a row. From 2015/16’s European pool flop, to two-time finalists, with a 2018 trophy to boot.
Stuart Lancaster’s role has often been praised, and he’s recently revealed the secret to helping so many youngsters make their mark.
“It’s in our interest to keep all the best young talent because you want to grow Leinster into a world-class team for the next 10 years,” Lancaster said.
“Young talent has left clubs during my time in England when they haven’t been given an opportunity. That doesn’t happen here. I did a review at 9am with 55, 50 players but there were some lads who couldn’t make it — young lads who haven’t played for Leinster yet. I had a second meeting with them to go through all what we did. That’s how you make young players feel welcome.”