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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

How Leo Cullen’s blueprint was inspired by Ferguson, Cody and Bill Belichick

The Leinster head coach is a student of several sports, not just rugby and has carried those lessons into his coaching manual.

Leo Cullen has been influenced by Alex Ferguson's managerial philosophy.
Leo Cullen has been influenced by Alex Ferguson's managerial philosophy.
Image: PA

LEO CULLEN HAS outlined how his obsession with other sports has helped to shape Leinster’s direction under his tutelage.

Thrown into the role of head coach unexpectedly following Matt O’Connor’s sacking in 2015, Cullen endured a troubled first season, when the absence of 20 senior squad members during the early part of the season contributed to poor results in Europe.

Nonetheless he used those weeks to place trust in the emerging talent at the club. Garry Ringrose emerged as a star, Josh van der Flier too. And the manual has been subtly tweaked ever since, each new season bringing at least one new face, from James Ryan to Caelan Doris to Harry Byrne.

Along the way, Cullen has been joined by Stuart Lancaster, yet the former England coach is another advocate of the policy that in rugby, like football, you win nothing without kids.

“You’ve got to play to your strengths,” Cullen said. “Being a player who came through the system so to speak, albeit a long, long time ago, I remember (underage rugby) playing with a lot of really talented guys who, for whatever reason, never made the progression.

“You always asked: ‘why didn’t they?’ I am a strong believer there is a lot of talent out there and it’s up to us to make sure we nurture that, that we give them a fair crack at it.

“So a lot of planning goes into what we do. There’s so much communication with Noel McNamara in the academy.”

harry-byrne-kicks-a-conversion Harry Byrne is one of the latest stars to graduate from the Leinster academy. Source: Robbie Stephenson/INPHO

McNamara’s coaching, coupled with the integration of academy and the senior team, have helped shorten the leap for each year’s newbies to the Leinster first-team.

“You don’t want to overexpose guys but you do want to pick windows and give them enough of a chance to see what they can do,” Cullen said. “It’s important too we have senior guys here rather than bringing 23 young guys. The bigger picture is around succession and making sure the model sticks.”

In other words he’s a firm believer in evolution rather than revolution, in checking the playing roster and ensuring there is a balance between youth and experience. No club wants to hit a roadblock with all their stars retiring around the same time – which is more or less what happened to the great Leeds United team of the ‘70s. Nor, especially in a sport as physical as rugby, do you want to dispense with the greybeards prematurely.

“I wouldn’t pinpoint one exact team that I’ve studied,” Cullen says. “As a club we haven’t purposely looked at lots of clubs from other sports but me personally, I have an interest in them (other sports).

Like, Manchester United under Alex Ferguson, were a classic example of a team that was always under construction. You never really noticed them doing it. They just refreshed season after season. The lesson from that is that you always have to have an eye for what’s going to happen in the future. In American football, the New England Patriots are a classic example of a dynasty-building operation.

“Bill Belichick (winner of a record six Super Bowls) divides opinion in the United States in terms of how he comes across and the way he has evolved his playing roster over the years. But as a coach you look at their succession planning and how it has been successful.

“At home Brian Cody has been in a similar managerial position for a long time and has been constantly evolving Kilkenny. Of course you look at rugby teams, too. Leicester was a team I admired greatly as a youngster – hence my desire to join them once the opportunity came along. You look at different things.”

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The thing that has been keeping his attention recently has been the progression of Cullen’s Cubs into internationals, Will Connors, Max Deegan, Caelan Doris, Hugo Keenan and Ed Byrne all completing the journey to international honours in 2020, having all come through the Leinster system.

“This is a hugely exciting time of the year for us because we get to see a number of guys who played in the November (Pro14) games last year who have now progressed into the Ireland set-up; it’s amazing for our guys to see the likes of Jamison (Gibson-Park), Will Connors, Hugo (Keenan), Ed Byrne get capped.

“We played against Glasgow last year in that November window and all those four guys were playing in that game; so when we went away to Glasgow a couple of weeks ago, it brought it back home what we want, which is to see our guys achieve at the highest level.”

They want to achieve at Pro14 level tonight against Edinburgh (kick off 8.15pm, live eir Sport), having won all five games in the league so far this season.

“We really produced a positive energy last week in Wales,” Cullen said. “We know we can be a little bit better but I was pleased with lots within the performance.”

Leinster (caps in brackets):

15. Jimmy O’Brien (22)
14. Cian Kelleher (17)
13. Liam Turner (2)
12. Ciarán Frawley (28)
11. Dave Kearney (152)
10. Harry Byrne (14)
9. Luke McGrath (132)
1. Peter Dooley (79)
2. James Tracy (114)
3. Michael Bent (145)
4. Devin Toner (252)
5. Scott Fardy (65)
6. Dan Leavy (66)
7. Scott Penny (17)
8. Rhys Ruddock (178) CAPTAIN

16. Dan Sheehan (3)
17. Michael Milne (12)
18. Ciarán Parker (2)
19. Ross Molony (100)
20. Josh Murphy (36)
21. Hugh O’Sullivan (23)
22. David Hawkshaw (2)
23. Ryan Baird (12)

Edinburgh: Jack Blain; Eroni Sau, Mark Bennett, Chris Dean, Jamie Farndale; Nathan Chamberlain, Henry Pyrgos (Capt); Pierre Schoeman, David Cherry, Lee-Roy Atalifo; Andries Ferreira, Andrew Davidson; Magnus Bradbury, Luke Crosbie, Ally Miller.

Replacements: Mike Willemse, Sam Grahamslaw, Dan Gamble, Jamie Hodgson, Rory Darge, Nic Groom, Charlie Shiel, James Johnstone.

Referee: Craig Evans (WRU)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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