STUART LANCASTER HAS deservedly been given a huge share of the credit for Leinster’s run to today’s Champions Cup final [KO 4.45pm Irish time, BT Sport/Sky Sports].
But the fact that the Englishman is even part of the province stems back to Leo Cullen picking up his phone one day in 2016 and calling Lancaster.
And for that, Cullen deserves huge credit too.
While Lancaster has been showered with the plaudits, former Leinster second row Cullen has quietly and effectively gone about his business as head coach, proving as influential, effective and unglamorous off the pitch as he was on it.
The 40-year-old was thrust into this role far earlier than he would have expected in 2015, when he was promoted from his position as forwards coach after the sacking of Matt O’Connor, but Cullen has been central to Leinster’s resurgence in the last two years.
Getting ex-England boss Lancaster on board has been his masterstroke.
“It takes a huge amount of confidence in a head coach or a director of rugby to bring someone of the calibre of Stuart Lancaster into your staff,” says Kevin McLaughlin, who played with and under Cullen at Leinster before his enforced retirement in 2015.
“Leo was in the infancy of his coaching career, he would have been the first to admit that, so to bring someone so senior in, to me that just highlights the confidence he has in himself and his own ability.”
McLaughlin, who now works with Kitman Labs, says Cullen’s leadership was always a huge strength and he hasn’t been surprised by the ex-lock’s success in transitioning into a head coach.
McLaughlin played in the Cullen-captained Leinster teams that won the 2011 and 2012 Heineken Cups and explains that in a week like this one, Cullen is a calming influence.
“That’s one of the reasons I loved playing with him because I was always quite uptight and I’d be jittery, couldn’t sit still, I’d always want to be doing things.
“You’d look at him and he’d be very calm, thinking about what we needed to do that day – ‘here’s the five lineouts we’re going to execute off and this is why’ – very clear on the game plan, very clear on the why and just very calm and composed, which is really infectious. That will definitely help Leinster’s chances of success.”
Cullen certainly looked utterly relaxed on the eve of the game after Leinster’s captain’s run in Bilbao.
A Champions Cup final? Nothing to get too giddy about.
“It is about trying to keep it as normal as possible and keep doing the things that got us to this stage really,” said Cullen. “That’s what experience tells you. We don’t need to do things that we haven’t done so far. It seems like a long time ago, 2012.”
That Cullen and Lancaster have dovetailed so well as a coaching duo is one of the major reasons to be confident that Leinster can bridge the six-year gap and lift the trophy today.
The key to their success, in McLaughlin’s eyes, has been how Cullen has freed Lancaster up to do what he does best.
“What Leo has been amazing at doing is accentuating Stuart Lancaster’s strengths, which are coaching and doing all the rugby-related stuff, defence and attack, picking his amazing brain and allowing him to really exercise what he does best.
“What Leo has been able to do is focus on his strengths, which are coaching the forwards, doing the reviews with the forwards, doing some of the higher-level team reviews, running the lineout and then dealing with the media, dealing with selection, dealing with the day-to-day running of the players and making some of the really hard decisions, and actually shielding some of the other coaches from that, which takes a huge amount of leadership.
“I think it’s an amazing combination and I think it was so smart of Leo, so strategic, to bring someone like Stuart in, who really compliments the strengths on the coaching staff.”
While Lancaster does the bulk of the coaching around Leinster’s attacking and defensive games, Cullen’s influence on the pack is vital.
The eastern province’s forwards have been sensational throughout this Champions Cup and McLaughlin says Cullen’s expertise in this area of the game has continued from his playing days – when he stressed things like the angle of a scrum or the specific type of lineout ball that would give Leinster the best chance of breaking the defence down with their launch plays off set-piece.
“Leo pushed standards hugely in Leinster around that sort of stuff and he’s carried that forward into coaching,” says McLaughlin.
“He’s got incredible nous around the forwards and making sure they’re linking with the backs and giving them the ball they need to execute Lancaster’s attack plan.”
Cullen is often the one who has to deliver bad news to players who are going to miss out or be dropped for games and even in this tricky area, McLaughlin feels the Leinster head coach is comfortable.
“He has no problem being honest,” says McLaughlin. “Strong leaders are able to have tough conversations and not because they like doing it but because they know it’s the best thing for the team.
“The real comfort people will take with Leo is that no matter how hard it is to take what he says – like a player getting bad news – at least they know that everything he does and everything that comes out of his mouth is with Leinster’s best interests at heart.”
The former Ireland second row doesn’t tend to show his emotions in front of the media but if he can help Leinster to a fourth title and can become the first man to win the Champions Cup as a player and coach, there might be a stronger-than-usual reaction.
“One of the things Jono Gibbes used to say to us was that ‘we never let the pendulum swing too far, it’s never amazing or it’s never terrible,’” says McLaughlin. “I think one of the things we pushed hard and they still push in Leinster is that you don’t celebrate until you’ve won the trophy.
“The goal this season is to win two trophies. I think you’ll maybe see a bit more of a smile on Leo’s face if they win, but he will be thinking towards a Pro14 semi-final against Munster at the RDS pretty quickly after the final whistle.
“That’s the really hard thing about being a coach – it’s probably not until he’s lying on the beach in a couple of weeks that he can actually reflect and enjoy, hopefully, some success.
“Because there’s nobody as a coach, in my view, who deserves a trophy more than Leo. He’s had a hard couple of seasons and done some amazing stuff to pull it all together.”
The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!