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'I'm sure there are lots of people who would love to do this. I feel very privileged'

Leo Cullen says it’s an honour to be asked to stay on as Leinster head coach for another two years.

IT’S UNUSUAL TO see Leo Cullen this early in the week, but the sight of the Leinster head coach strolling into one of the meeting rooms on the top floor of the province’s UCD headquarters is a reflection of the week that’s in it.

After a couple of facile Pro14 wins and a two-week break over the Six Nations period, Leinster are very much back in big-game mode again as they head into Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster.

Leo Cullen Cullen during Leinster training at UCD today. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The Aviva Stadium inter-pro is the start of a season-defining block for the defending European champions and for the first time since the final pool game against Wasps way back in January, Cullen has all his internationals back in the building.

Much water has passed under the bridge since the likes of Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, James Ryan and Rob Kearney last lined out in blue, and the challenge for Cullen and Stuart Lancaster is to make that re-integration process as seamless as possible.

That work began last Wednesday and intensified this afternoon as Leinster took to the training paddock for their first session of the week, as the province gets set to resume their Champions Cup defence against their northern rivals.

In guiding Leinster to their fourth European crown in Bilbao last May, Cullen became the first man to win the Champions Cup both as a player and coach, as his stock in the top job soared during the province’s greatest-ever season. 

News of Cullen’s contract extension with Leinster a fortnight ago came as little surprise given his role in guiding the club back to the summit of European rugby, as both he and Lancaster extended their deals for a further two seasons.

It is a major fillip for Leinster to have secured the future of their senior coaching team moving forward, given the success they have achieved in recent times. 

“I’m delighted and honoured really to be asked to stay on first and foremost,” the head coach says.

It’s not something I ever take for granted. I’m sure there are lots of people who would love to do this job. For me, I do feel very privileged that I’m in the position that I’m in. The club have shown quite a lot of faith in me which I will always be appreciative of.

Cullen, with no prior head coach experience, was appointed to succeed Matt O’Connor in August 2015 after the Australian’s ill-fated tenure came to a premature end and has, alongside Lancaster, managed to haul the province away from turbulent times and back to rarefied heights again.

He continued: “You tend not to think that much about it really. You get asked to stay on, you come to an agreement and then you move on. It’s not that sort of business that we spend too much time on reflecting in.

“For us now it’s just trying to focus on the task of playing against Ulster and a very exciting block of games but that [contract] hasn’t really changed anything.

Leo Cullen The head coach speaking to media on Monday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It just means my summer holidays and what I do during the off-season is being organised whereas there would probably have been a little bit of uncertainty about it there for a while.

“But yeah, we’re very fixated on trying to do something special with this group.”

After topping their pool to advance through to the knockout stages, Leinster are bidding to go back-to-back in Europe, while a home Pro14 semi-final means they’re already in a strong position in the league heading towards the business end of the campaign.

For now, Cullen is relishing the prospect of his Leinster side returning to a sold-out Aviva Stadium, where they will hope to add to the memories created there last season when Saracens and Scarlets were both conquered en route to that famous win over Racing in at the San Mamés. 

“To be in the Aviva for this game is a little bit extra special,” the former second row continued.

“Munster are a team that gets to play in the Aviva more than Ulster do because we don’t bring our game there but Ulster will be waiting in the wings. I’m sure they will come with a strong plan and we need to make sure we get every little bit right in terms of how we prepare for the game.

“We know if we do certain things well, we’re a hard team to play against but for us, we need to understand how we do those things well in the game and that starts with how we turn up for work today and how we go about our week and how we prepare and build a connection across the different parts of the team.

“We’ll focus on delivering a good plan to the team.”

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Ryan Bailey

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