Cullen: 'There's an old saying, that success makes you weak'

Leinster have quickly turned the page on their double-winning season, and are focused on ensuring success isn’t followed by another barren spell.

Leo Cullen speaking at the Pro14 launch in Glasgow.
Leo Cullen speaking at the Pro14 launch in Glasgow.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

LEINSTER HAVE BEEN in this position before, so painful memories of the province’s barren spell continue to lurk in the back of their minds. Champions now, but it doesn’t take long for great teams to fall off their perch and slip back into the pack.

Three European crowns in four glorious seasons — a truly golden age for the club — was followed by a period of pain and regret which nobody could have foreseen on those indelible, and sun-kissed, days in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London.

It wasn’t until a May day in Bilbao three short months ago that an agonising five-year drought was ended, a fourth European star then augmented by the Pro14 title as a magical season ended with a historic double.

But as Leo Cullen and Johnny Sexton posed patiently alongside the 13 other head coaches and captains at this week’s season launch in Glasgow, there was a dawning realisation that a memorable, and near-perfect, season had been quickly consigned to the history books.

The page has turned, the achievements of last year put to one side, and the minds reset and refocused on finding ways to improve further and remain the pre-eminent force in European rugby.

Getting back to Glasgow for the 2019 Pro14 final, or Newcastle for the Champions Cup showpiece next May, is the ultimate goal and challenge for Cullen’s side, but the focus has had to be narrowed considerably over the pre-season period.

The performances against Montauban and Newcastle in recent weeks have done little to ease Cullen’s early-season nerves, as he prepares for back-to-back away fixtures against Cardiff Blues and Scarlets without his frontline internationals.

“There’s an old saying, that success makes you weak,” Cullen, named Pro14 coach of the year, says.

“After the summer break, you get back to playing games and you see what we did in Montauban and you think ‘ohh’, there are a lot of things we need to fix-up here.

“And we go and play Newcastle and have a heavy defeat, particularly when it’s at home, and it does sting.

Leinster's director of rugby Leo Cullen Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“A lot of people here are talking about last season but for me all I’m thinking about is how do we avoid this [losing] happening again. How are we going to get better? We lost 42-17 at home with a decent enough team as well, so we just need to figure out why does that take place so it doesn’t happen during the season.”

The head coach, although clearly frustrated by what he has seen from his players during the two pre-season hit outs, hopes the group can learn from their mistakes and use the lessons to hit the ground running once the serious business begins.

“The last couple of weeks have been good in terms of focusing the mind so we just need to go about our business and understand what do we do during the week that affects the weekend?

“All through the club, whether that’s the players, the rugby coaching staff or the support staff. All the actions that we display on a day-to-day basis, how does that feed into the performance of the team at the weekend.

“We need to understand that when we display these actions, it leads to this result and if we display other actions that are less desirable, it gives us a less desirable outcome.

“For us, that’s the way our minds should be focused for the start of the season. Everyone is adding all the time, there is massive optimism within every team but by the end of next weekend, half the teams will have lost and then there’s pressure. And more pressure and more pressure.

“People respond in different ways to the pressure that comes on, and for us expectations and those types of things are a positive. The way we go about our day-to-day business is a pressure but we see it as a positive thing.”

Sexton, the new club captain, knows better than most how difficult it us to follow up success with more success. He endured hardship during the barren years, constantly wondering would Leinster ever return to the heights they had scaled under Michael Cheika and then Joe Schmidt.

There were near-misses along the way, but Sexton had insisted Leinster weren’t ‘within touching distance’ of winning trophies again following his return from Racing 92 in 2015.

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Jonathan Sexton and Leo Cullen Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Pro12 final defeat to Connacht in 2016 and two semi-final defeats to Clermont and Scarlets in 2017 added to the frustration, so it is understandable that Sexton — as the serial winner he is — has returned from the summer break determined to double down, and drive things on again.

“It’s all about your mindset,” the Ireland out-half said.

“If you think, ‘Right, we have got to win those two trophies again’, then we will get ourselves in trouble. What we have to do is ask ourselves, ‘How do we get better from last season?’ And there are plenty of areas of our game where we can improve. Even some of the games we won last year, maybe we got a little lucky. We need to get better at managing those types of games.

“Also look at a lot of the teams who are here today. They have strengthened — signing new players, appointing new coaches — whereas we have lost a few players. That is a big challenge for us.

“This group is slightly different, there’s some similarities — we’re in a position where we’ve tasted what it feels like to win. But also, fresh in our memories, and for me it sticks out more than the winning, was the years before when we lost to Connacht in the final, when we lost those two semi-finals. We’ve had a taste of that, we’ve had a taste of success.”

He adds: “With this young group coming through, with some of the older lads, we’ve a good mixture of guys who are starting out and guys coming towards the end who want to be selfish and make the most of their last few years.

“We’ve a good blend in the group, we’re at a good point now where we can really weigh everything up and make a decision as to how we go forward.”

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Ryan Bailey

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