Leo Cullen: The reluctant coach

Leo Cullen wandered back towards the familial bosom of the Leinster dressing room glad to be able to finally stop thinking about rugby, for a couple of weeks at least.

The season had just come to a hugely successful conclusion with a second trophy in three weeks and Leinster’s triple Heineken Cup-winning captain had become the first head coach to steer a team to a European cup and Celtic league double.

Yet Cullen, in his finest hour as the leader of the province’s think tank rather than the engine room, had still spoken of his doubts about whether this coaching lark was all it is cracked up to be.

Even after his most successful campaign to date, Cullen remains the reluctant coach.

Team-mates believe that when Cullen returned to Leinster from two seasons with Leicester Tigers in 2007, he had the air of a coach in waiting and though he would play seven more seasons in blue, his province’s most successful captain under Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt and Matt O’Connor, the lock was not convinced it was a path he wanted to take. Certainly he never envisaged being catapulted into the head coach role just a season after retiring, O’Connor’s exit seeing Leinster turn to their rookie forwards coach in 2015.

Three years on and they are once again the kings of both their backyard and Europe.

“I probably saw a lot of coaches and didn’t fancy what they were doing,” Cullen said on Saturday night.

“It’s quite draining on your mind. I thought there’d be other things I could do. I’m very grateful to Matt too, he let me step in when I stopped playing. And taking over from him after that was a reasonably turbulent time. So to see the work going in behind the scenes to get the club to this point, it probably makes it all a bit better in many ways as it hasn’t been straightforward.”

Cullen will have felt the pressure in those early days at the helm. The struggles in Europe in his debut season, failing to get out of the pool with five losses and one win, pointed to an end rather than a beginning, and there was further reflection after a lost PRO12 final to Connacht at Murrayfield.

Last season saw Leinster lose semi-finals in both Europe and the PRO12 and the signs that with the addition of Stuart Lancaster as senior coach, the Cullen regime was finding its feet. This season proved that emphatically.

“I think the club are probably a little bit brave as well to give it to me in the first place. You feel quite privileged to be able to do it, it’s probably earlier than I ever thought it would happen.

“It’s been a rough ride at times, but very enjoyable at times.”

Even as he closes the chapter on 2017-18, Cullen remains aware of the fragile nature of a career in a tracksuit, just by the upheaval undergone at each of the other provinces this season with a different head coach set to be in position next season than started this one. Has he changed his mind on coaching?

“Not really. I still ask myself the question every day as I come in. It does take its toll, it’s part and parcel of it. The scrutiny is huge, I think of the other Irish coaches this year; I’m the only one left in situ, three have left for different reasons.

“That’s just part of the job spec. For every team going well, there’s another not going as well. When one team’s going well, another coach comes under pressure for his job. Not everyone is going well, not everyone can win. I feel for some of the other coaches who are out there, talking to them after their departures.

“It’s not a straightforward job, we’ll enjoy today while we can.”


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