Leinster welcome Top14 high-flyers Montpellier to Dublin’s RDS on Saturday for the Champions Cup opener and their head coach has to plot a way to negate Vern Cotter’s team of many talents.
Montpellier succumbed to a second league defeat of the season at the weekend, a 31-20 loss at Stade Francais that lost them the Top14 lead to Lyon.
Cotter fielded a team containing Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half, Fran Steyn at 10 and Fijian powerhouse Nemani Nadolo on the wing but still had the luxury of resting summer signings Louis Picamoles and Aaron Cruden from the trip to Paris.
Those are the sort of resources that are simply inaccessible to Cullen and his fellow Irish provincial head coaches. So too the deep pockets of private owners who can absorb substantial losses year in, year out to achieve success, with back-to-back European champions Saracens reported to have made a pre-tax loss last year of £3.3m (€3.6m), an improvement on successive annual losses of between £4m (€4.4m) and £6.4m (€7.1m) amounting to £36m-plus (€40m) since the start of the decade and more than £45m (€50m) in the last 10 years.
“You look back at the way the game has gone and you think jeepers in 2012 we won the European Cup against Ulster in the final and you think of the teams that we played against en route there,” Cullen, Leinster’s three-time Heineken Cup-winning captain, said following the 23-17 win over Munster.
“Then Toulon comes along and the model that they have, from winning the second division and the players they had then, Victor Matfield, George Gregan. Then they have the Jonny Wilkinsons etc and the list goes on and on.
“Saracens even, and you see their accumulated losses. This is while they are at the top of the European game. The model is different. How do you compete with that? We don’t compete the same.
“We have our way of doing things, and that’s a sustainable model that we have. We can’t control what other teams do because we can’t accumulate €50m of losses. That’s not the way it works. I think Saracens have this thing called ‘making memories’, but it’s making memories and racking up a huge debt at the same time.
“So that’s a challenge, but that’s the teams we’re up against.”
This was not a whinge, rather Cullen simply outlining that the provinces must operate by a different, more parsimonious model.
“Montpellier are the new team on the block. If you think back to the Leicesters and the Northamptons, and Toulouse, they’re where they are in the game. We want to be challenging at the top. We’ve a great opportunity this year to start off again.
“We got to a semi-final last year, almost getting there, but we weren’t good enough last year, so we need to be better this year, and that’s all that we will be focusing on, getting better, getting better, getting better.”
He continued: “Montpellier, I am sure, have been focusing on the same thing, because they went out and spent a lot of money during the summer to try and get better.
“It’s not a worry. We just need to worry about ourselves and just get better. We can’t control who else is out there. There’s always competition, so we need to be doing all we can ourselves to be better. End of story.”
Cullen believes Leinster are better placed than a year ago to compete in Europe, their pool also containing Glasgow and English champions Exeter.
“There’s a lot more stability,” he said, comparing this year to last. “There’s a lot more stability in terms of what we’re trying to do. If you think back to the start of last season when Kurt (McQuilkin, defence coach) moved on, Stuart (Lancaster) came in, you’re trying to tweak things and change things as we go along without that much time. We hadn’t had a proper pre-season. All of last season, with the coaching group as it is, definitely there’s a lot more stability in the place.
“The players are in pretty good shape, I would say. Obviously coming in they’re a little bit later starting because they’re coming in for (PRO14) round five, and Robbie (Henshaw) for round six. But there were four Lions players coming back last week so they’re only (playing) their second and third games next week. So it’s just in that cohesion maybe we’ve still a little bit to go, but we will get up to speed very, very quickly this week.”