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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 14 December, 2018

'My agent was looking at me like I was crazy but I signed on the back of a napkin'

Aidan McCullen tells The42 about a career that brought him from Dublin to Toulouse to London and back home.

McCullen [left] with Mal O'Kelly in 2004.
McCullen [left] with Mal O'Kelly in 2004.
Image: INPHO

“I’M PROBABLY BEING a bit too hard on myself, but I was an average athlete.”

Minutes into our conversation, Aidan McCullen sets out his stall in terms of explaining what it was that gave him an insatiable drive during a rugby career that saw him play for Leinster, Toulouse, London Irish and Ireland.

Those who saw the former back row/lock play might say otherwise, but McCullen’s belief that he was naturally disadvantaged saw him train more ferociously than anyone he played with.

“I know one thing in my career – that no one worked harder than me, because I kind of had to,” says McCullen. “I wasn’t as naturally talented an athlete as others.”

McCullen’s relentless approach  to a career that was stunted by injuries saw him achieve what few other Irishmen have – not only an international cap but a fling with the glamorous Top 14 giants Toulouse.

The son of a former Meath footballer, McCullen only started playing rugby when he “begrudgingly” went along with his parents’ decision to send him to Castleknock College after the family moved to Dublin.

Trevor Ringland was one of the few rugby names the youngster knew, but by fourth year of school and when captaining an U16s “team of misfits, a Reservoir Dogs of a team,” McCullen discovered his grá for the sport.

He came across the school gym at that point and tackled the five old rusty machines with the sort of vigour that would come to define him. Two Senior Cup campaigns later, he was selected for representative honours and his career began to take shape.

“There was a Leinster Schools tour to Australia in 1995. They brought 40 players and I was the last name in there. I ended up player of the tournament. I got brought into the Irish academy, or the Irish foundation as it was called.

Ronan O'Gara and Aidan McCullen McCullen looks to halt Ronan O'Gara during the AIL's glory days. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“It was me, David Wallace, John Fogarty, a few others, Ronan O’Gara actually didn’t make it crazily enough. We’d meet up every six weeks and they’d give us a programme. We’d go off and do the programme ourselves and meet back and they’d measure our bench, our clean, our sprint and a 3km run. I killed myself training for it.”

McCullen went on to captain Leinster at U19 and U20 levels, before playing for the Ireland U21 side. A year studying in Germany on the Erasmus programme meant months more of hard work in the gym and 10 meals a day as his body shape continued to morph.

In 1998, McCullen’s Lansdowne coach, former Ireland international Donal Spring, hooked the dynamic forward up with French club Dax, then playing in France’s first division.

McCullen, a graduate in French and German in Trinity, twisted Dax’s arm by mischievously informing them that Bath were keen to sign him, while he also had a linguistic trick up his sleeve.

I went over to negotiate and sat there with the president and club secretary and they were talking in French, basically discussing how little money they could get away with giving me,” explains McCullen.

“I sat there acting dumb and then they said in broken English, ‘this is what we’ve decided’. I just said ‘you didn’t say that, I speak fluent French.’ So I ended up getting great terms!”

The year in France hardened the 20-year-old McCullen, who returned to Ireland to star for Lansdowne during the days when the AIL remained the biggest draw in the country.

This was the era before the Celtic League, meaning limited provincial opportunities. Coming into the 2001/02 season, that all changed as the professional sides in Ireland, Scotland and Wales got their act together.

Aidan McCullen McCullen in Leinster colours in 2001. Source: INPHO

McCullen was a man in demand.

“I got offered a Connacht contract having made the AIL team of the season, that really helped when the provinces were beefing up,” says McCullen.

“Declan Kidney offered me a Munster contract, and I remember him saying ‘I wouldn’t usually go for a Leinster player, but my players spoke highly of you’. I was honoured by that, but I told him I really wanted to play for Leinster. I held out.”

McCullen was playing international rugby with the Ireland sevens team and started a Business degree at the Michael Smurfit School of Business instead of signing for Connacht or Munster.

A groin injury he partly attributes to mis-training during those days in the gym at school left him in a tricky position, but finally Leinster head coach Matt Williams called.

I met him in the airport just as he was heading away on a recruitment trip. He asked me to join Leinster, but it was always in my nature to say ‘that’s not enough’.

“I was playing with no hand, no offers at that time, and wanted only to play for Leinster. I ended up getting 25% more than he originally offered and part of the deal was that I got paid straight away and I started working with the Leinster physio.

“He fixed me before I even started playing the next season, so I got all that benefit from six months of physio. I was relentless with the rehab, I was probably OCD with it. I asked the physio ‘how much is too much?’

McCullen found equally thirsty players in Girvan Dempsey, Dave Quinlan, Ben Willis, Kieran Lewis and Nathan Spooner, putting in a huge number of extra hours working on his handling skills.

Aidan McCullen 10/1/2003 McCullen on the rampage against Swansea in 2003. Source: INPHO

Still, he found himself behind the likes of Victor Costello and Eric Miller for a starting spot at Leinster when he regained full fitness, and went to the province’s Australian backs coach Alan Gaffney – ” a fantastic guy” – for advice.

“I remember asking him what do I needed to do. He said, ‘You’re good at everything… except you’re good at everything.’ I said, ‘Am I the jack of all trades?’ and he said ‘the way a coach should think is I need this guy to that job, another guy to do that’

“I went away and said to the fitness coach that I want to be able to sprint for 30 metres, smash into people and get an offload away. He was telling me that was very niche, but it was what I wanted to target. I trained for that the whole time.

I did shorter-rep weights, a lot of cleans and box jumps. I’d do cleans and go out and do a 30-metre sprint. I started doing stuff on the pitch where I was bashing into a bag, being off balance and getting an offload away.”

A brilliant 2002/03 season for Leinster followed, and eventually an Ireland cap against Samoa in 2003, and unbeknownst to McCullen it was at that point that Toulouse began to scout him.

By 2005, the Leinster man had made the decision to leave Ireland and move to France, a stated goal that he had penned years before.

“The Declan Kidney era was a pretty unhappy era for everyone at Leinster. During that year, I looked back at my goal which was that by the age of 28 if I wasn’t a regular in the Ireland team, I’d go to France and join Toulouse. I had written this goal down at 22!

“I rang an agent, I wasn’t really a well-known name, so it was actually a difficult task to get one. I targeted him because I heard he had a pretty good relationship with Toulouse. He said that Toulouse were interested and I was like ‘Yeah, right.’

Aidan McCullen McCullen played for Ireland in sweltering heat in 2003. Source: INPHO

“At the time, they were the kings of Europe.”

Already two-time Heineken Cup winners, Guy Novès’ men were in the midst of another victorious European season, driven by world-class players such as Yannick Jauzion, Clement Poitrenaud, Fabien Pelous, William Servat, and the devilishly gifted halfbacks Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde and Frédéric Michalak.

In the pack was Trevor Brennan, already on his way to becoming a club legend.

McCullen was wined and dined when he went to visit the club on a weekend they put 50 points on Narbonne in the league, but in truth the contract was already signed in McCullen’s head.

My agent and the club were discussing terms, haggling over 10% and I just butted in and said that 10% to play for Toulouse rather than another club doesn’t matter to me. I wanted to play for Toulouse. They loved me for that.

“My agent was just looking at me like I was crazy but I signed there on the back of a napkin.”

With Leinster’s unhappy 2004/05 season involving a Heineken Cup exit at home to Leicester in the quarter-finals, their campaign ended in April, meaning McCullen was free to move to France and get stuck into some typically hard training.

McCullen started into pre-season six weeks before the rest of the squad, getting a major headstart, but ultimately his latest relentless regime resulted in a knee injury.

Guy Noves is arrested after the match 22/5/2005 McCullen enjoyed working with the enigmatic Toulouse coach. Source: Jamie McDonald

He burst out of the blocks to gain preference over the highly-rated France international Yannick Nyanga and All Blacks-capped Isitolo Maka, who “used to go home for the summer and not train, put on massive weight.”

Life was good as McCullen immediately adapted to and thrived in the off-the-field culture too, but the dream started to be broken up as a meniscus tear in McCullen’s knee brought on the early stages of arthritis in the joint.

Fitness, and therefore appearances, were intermittent thereafter and the knee injury would come to be the turning point in McCullen’s career.

Despite a two-year contract in Toulouse, the Irishman had a break clause in the deal that would allow him to get out after a single season and Premiership outfit London Irish made an offer that involved fixing McCullen’s knee.

Toulouse’s doctor advised allowing the knee to heal itself naturally – “it’s like a rough stone and the water needs to run over it until it’s smooth,” said the French expert – but London Irish promised treatment from a world-renowned surgeon who had worked with Manchester United and other leading sporting outfits.

McCullen opted to move on to London where he underwent a “disastrous” operation. His knee would never be the same, but Toulouse remained desperate to get McCullen back to the la ville rose.

“In my first year with London Irish, we played Toulouse in the Heineken Cup and I had my best game for London Irish over there. I was sitting with Guy afterwards, he asked me to sit with him. He doesn’t really talk to players very much, he’s sort of enigmatic.

“When he talks to you there’s always a reason for it, even though he was courteous and would say hello. He just wouldn’t be chatty. He asked me to sit beside him and asked me to come back to Toulouse.

Rugby Union - Guinness Premiership - London Irish v Sale Sharks - Madejski Stadium McCullen during his London Irish stint. Source: EMPICS Sport

“That was in the first year, and then in the second year he asked me to come back and see out the rest of my career over there.”

McCullen says there wasn’t even temptation to return, despite his affection for Toulouse. Even in that first year, he knew his career was coming towards its conclusion. All the medical advice he was getting told McCullen that if he ever wanted to have kids and be able to play with them, his deal at London Irish needed to be his last.

And so, McCullen was deprived of the opportunity to take over from Brennan as Toulouse’s long-term resident Irishman.

“The reason they brought me in was as a succession plan for Trevor,” says McCullen. “I was there to replace Trev. I never fully spotted the trend when I was there first.

I would do what they call l’ascenseur, where I’d start at number eight and move into the second row after 60 minutes when Trev went off.”

Having left London Irish in 2008 and retired from the professional game, McCullen headed home to Ireland to take up a player/coach position with Lansdowne as he ensured he could claim claim back 40% of the tax he’d paid over a 10-year period as a pro in Ireland.

McCullen had been studying through those final years in London Irish, learning skills he felt would be useful post-rugby.

His desire for self-improvement shone through again after McCullen joined Communicorp Group, first on an intern basis in difficult economic times before rising to his current role as Director of Digital and Innovation.

Dominic Ryan celebrates after the game McCullen helped Lansdowne to promotion into Division 1 in 2010. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Applying himself so diligently to a new field has been important, while a role as a commentator and analyst with Setenta Sports keeps him firmly in touch with rugby, but McCullen didn’t experience the same difficult transition as others do post-sport.

“Talking to guys like Jerry Flannery, who has done brilliantly post-rugby, I think the saying ‘the taller you are, the harder you fall’ sometimes applies,” says McCullen. “I was talking about Isa Nacewa recently; it would be harder for him to retire because he went out on such a high.

“He didn’t have any injuries and he didn’t have to wind it up. He made a decision when he was at the height, still so fit, playing great rugby, to retire. That’s why he has the drive to go back and play.

“If you’re actually on the way down the hill, it’s easier to retire, especially if you have something to move on to.”

There are regrets of course, around Ireland and certain times with Leinster, but McCullen is entirely at ease as he looks back on his rugby career. Still only 38, he remains ambitious to achieve more in his second life with Communicorp Group.

His energetic sons, Jake and Josh, are delighted to have a father with a relatively healthy body, even if they don’t realise it right now. McCullen himself reflects with a characteristic realism.

I look back and think I did very well for myself. I’m honoured to have played for Toulouse. When you’re in your career, you’re never satisfied, and I wasn’t. I was always disappointed about getting injured, not getting caps, all that stuff.

“But when I step back and go, ‘I was an average athlete. I rode the pine when I was a kid, couldn’t make the U13s soccer team for Castleknock Celtic, and was coming off the bench in Castleknock.’ Then I think about being capped and playing for Toulouse. I did well.

“When you’re in it, you’re angry and disappointed, but now I can say it wasn’t so bad.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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