WHILE THIS WEEK’S pre-match press conference was a chance for Brian O’Driscoll to get a few more goodbyes out of the way before the Pro12 gets really serious, Leo Cullen’s words had an altogether different feel.
The triple Heineken Cup winning captain is retiring too, and he has played as much (if not more) of a role in elevating Leinster from also-rans to standard-bearers over the past decade.
However, for Cullen this didn’t seem like a farewell from a club stalwart. It was more like hello.
“I’m sure I’ll miss the buzz of the big games, but for me it’s just turn the page,” said Cullen, already sounding more at home, more forthcoming to media enquiries in his rebirth as forwards coach.
“It just means I’ve a desk here now instead of a locker.
“I don’t have to go through the physical pain of winter – I’ll just be inflicting the pain from now on.”
Things have changed with Cullen, though. The questions about Jonathan Sexton’s future and difficulties of competing against the lucrative contracts on offer in France are directed at him, and the captain can no longer convincingly defer to someone higher up the chain of command.
This was no wistful look back through his greatest hits. Jono Gibbes may still have final say over the pack on the training field, but here was the retiring lock attempting to wield, in public, the influence he has for so long had in private. And for now that influence is best served selling the benefits of committing a future to eastern province.
“We would hope that we are producing guys that first and foremost want to play for Leinster. This is where they’ve grown up, we’ve got some guys to bring into the mix, but we would like to think we offer a better package overall than what’s on offer somewhere else.
“Behind the scenes there is so much work that goes into developing the players from an S&C, nutrition and skill point of view so that they can be the best players that they can possibly be when they represent Ireland.
He added: “We want to breed the next Brian O’Driscoll, the next world class star and we like to think that Leinster would be the best place for that to happen for those guys.”
Cullen will not make sweeping changes once he takes up his new office. His fingerprints have been on everything at the club since he and Michael Cheika teamed up to “change the environment and the way people think”.
With all the medals and framed photos of him lifting trophies, it’s that cultural shift which the 36-year-old says he is most proud of.
The foundation means that the Wicklow man is starting his coaching career from the most solid of bases. But he is acutely aware of the need for himself, Matt O’Connor, Richie Murphy and academy director Girvan Dempsey to balance the rigidity and discipline with a freedom of expression in the right areas of a competitive setting.
Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO
“You don’t want to go into that philosophy of over-coaching players. You look at the clips of Brian [O'Driscoll] – the things he does are almost not coachable. It’s just that he has a natural flair for the game, a bravery to try things on the biggest stage.
“It’s definitely a fine line; we want to harness the creative brilliance of individuals, but at the same time, Brian’s a guy who sets the highest standards [off the field] as well, so it’s important to get that balance all the time.”
Plenty of medals, no regrets
Cullen will be given his official send-off from the RDS tonight [with potentially two knockout fixtures still to come at the ground], but he began his top table commitment by addressing a side of his career which proved much less fulfilling than his exploits at club level. The old chestnut, Ireland.
“Players always feel they could have done a bit more. I don’t know if regret is the right word. I’d have loved to play in more big games for Ireland over the years, but I look back and I came through underage rugby with a lot of players who had to retire early. In many ways I’m thankful for the experiences I did get.
“It also made my experiences with Leinster all the more special as well; a team I’ve had so much affection for such a long period of time.
“I try not to live my life with regret, I just look forward to what I can do next.”