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Cullen open to Leinster bringing in coaching experience after Henry's stint

The eastern province’s head coach says he doesn’t feel threatened in his position.

SOMETIMES ONE WONDERS if Leo Cullen curses the fact that he is Leinster head coach.

Still only 38, the former second row was playing for the province as recently as 2014.

That summer, he became Leinster’s forwards coach. Cullen’s early plans for his new career path surely did not include taking on a head coaching role the following year.

Leo Cullen Cullen at Tallaght Stadium this afternoon. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Oftentimes the advice for young coaches is not to be in a rush to get the big job. Learn your craft without the major pressure first, sages like Wayne Smith say.

But Matt O’Connor’s departure in 2015 – with a year remaining on his contract as head coach – set the wheels in motion on a process that resulted in Cullen being promoted.

Leinster looked elsewhere before turning to their three-time Heineken Cup-winning captain. Robbie Deans was sounded out, Tony Brown rejected an offer and Tabai Matson resisted advances.

Cullen had been slotted in as interim head coach after O’Connor’s exit and with the lack of success in pursuing other options, Leinster’s Professional Game Board increasingly settled on the idea that Cullen could lead the province forward more permanently.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora initially expressed concerns over whether Cullen was experienced enough for Leinster’s top job, but a two-year deal was copper-fastened in the end.

Despite a Pro12 final, Cullen’s first season was difficult and now the thought that he was rushed into this role crosses the mind. The man himself says he doesn’t waste time thinking about it.

“Well, I’d signed a three-year contract as Leinster forwards coach, so it’s very different to what I’d signed up for, for sure,” said Cullen at Tallaght Stadium today.

“But I’m doing it now, so there’s no point in me worrying about any of those other questions, because I don’t have time to think about the answers.

“I’m just fully focused and committed to doing this job as best I can for Leinster Rugby.”

Leo Cullen Cullen's Leinster face Gloucester in Tallaght on Saturday at 3pm. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Cullen readily points out that he is learning more about head coaching with each day. The visit of Graham Henry for two weeks on a consultancy basis, ending last Sunday, was an enriching experience for Cullen and something he welcomed.

It’s natural to suggest that the visit of Henry underlines that Leinster’s coaching ticket is missing something, all the more so now that Kurt McQuilkin – the most experienced member of the staff – is returning to New Zealand in the coming weeks.

Backs coach Girvan Dempsey is 40-years-old, while scrum expert John Fogarty is 38. Leinster’s remaining trio of coaches has very little experience, meaning Henry was an invaluable short-term addition.

“I certainly don’t feel threatened now,” said Cullen when asked about Leinster possibly making a permanent move to bring someone like Henry on board.

I have loved the experience of having him here. From my end, I am still learning, learning every day. I’ve learned so much in a short period of time.”

Indeed, having thoroughly enjoyed working with Henry, Cullen claims to be entirely open to the idea of Leinster bringing in an experienced figure – as long as that person fits in with the Leinster ethos.

“It’s easy for me to get somebody in from the outside, whether it’s Graham Henry or somebody else, if I think they can add to the group – and certainly Graham Henry added to the group massively because of the wealth of experience he has – and I’m comfortable knowing the direction I see the team going,” said Cullen.

“I think he’s someone that can add to the group massively, because that’s what’s best for the group. If there’s other people who can add along the way, yeah, I’ll bring that to our CEO and the board and if they’re on board with the proposal, they’ll back it.

“If they back it and we both think it’s something where it can benefit the group, we can make progress along those lines.”

Graham Henry and Leo Cullen Henry's stint was beneficial to Cullen. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

While McQuilkin’s impending departure – a “huge loss,” says Cullen – will leave the defence coach role empty, it may be that Leinster end up making a signing that echoes Munster’s shift to a director of rugby model.

The southern province brought Andy Farrell in as a consultant last season, before appointing Rassie Erasmus as director of rugby on a three-year deal, with Anthony Foley remaining on as head coach alongside the South African.

Leinster have not indicated any plans to move in that direction, but clearly Cullen benefited hugely from Henry’s two-week visit.

“Probably what I’ve learned the most is his ability to be able to break things down; if you have a complicated problem, to be able to break it down into a really simple solution and break it down into really simple language,” said Cullen.

He has such vast experience in the game; he has more coaching experience than I have years lived, so he was stimulating company for me. He’s been through so much and everyone would focus in on his last game in rugby, the 2011 World Cup final with the All Blacks.

“A lot of people focus in on that game, but since then he has done some consultancy work with Argentina, the Blues, even with the Warriors in rugby league.

“Think about some of the experiences that he’s gone through as well, with the disappointment of the World Cup with the All Blacks in 2007, his ups and downs with Wales and the Lions. It’s been fascinating for me to have that level of time and interaction with him.

“Over the two to three months before he arrived, we would have been in regular communication about having a really clear plan for when he got here for the two weeks, so everything ran [smoothly] and we had really specific goals and outcomes.

“He’s worked really well within the group. For me and the other coaches, he’s been a massive help and hopefully that messaging will filter down to the players.”

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Murray Kinsella

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