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Leo Cullen: 'It's quite soon in my career as a coach, but Leinster too good to turn down'

It’s been a whirlwind 15 months from captain to coach.

LEO CULLEN PLACED himself in the hot seat as Leinster’s full-time head coach for the first time yesterday.

The placing is more than familiar for him, the top of Leinster’s media room in Clonskeagh has been a regular trip. But this was not Cullen the player, the captain or the rookie coach. This was the man in charge, speaking in a slightly more polished and serious manner than the bone dry wit that was his trademark in previous incarnations.

His first post-playing season was a rough one for everyone at Leinster. And now that the forwards coach has taken the big gig, that experience leaves him gritting teeth and getting his supporting staff together for the two years ahead.

“There’s a huge challenge here. I’m under no illusions,” says Cullen. “I’m very fortunate we’ve got a lot of good people working here and I’m going to lean on a lot of those people.”

It all feels like the fast forward button has been hit somewhere in the 15 months since he sat in the same seat preparing to draw the curtain on his playing career.

Leo Cullen, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden celebrate winning Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I was very fortunate that, when I finished playing, Matt O’Connor offered me a position in his coaching team. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do at that stage.

“I thought I might play  - like Brad Thorn – into my early 40s. Unfortunately my body’s not quite as resilient as his. I was very fortunate to have that opportunity to get into the coaching world. I’ve learned a huge amount from last year and I’m learning all the time. It is quite soon in my career as a coach, but it’s too good to turn down.”

From the desk of a forwards coach, playing style is not something that’s easily imposed on the wider team. Focus is more often drawn to the intricacies of set-pieces and individual roles around the park. Cullen doesn’t strike us as a man who throws around words like ‘philosophy’ lightly, and unsurprisingly he was intent on keeping his ideal playing style close to his chest for the time-being. Instead, he echoes the philosophy of Pat Lam: find a way to win no matter what the circumstances.

“(In) any game, there are so many variables: the weather conditions, where you’re playing the game, the players you have at your disposal, the opposition you’re going to be facing…

I would have a very clear picture in my own head of where I see the team going. It’s important every week to be able to tweak that plan for the variables that I’ve mentioned.”

While the ideas may be clear in his head, in practice Cullen remains an inexperienced coach. So he will continue to make every day at UCD a school day, drilling in to his memory banks for how O’Connor, Schmidt, Cheika, Howard, Kidney and Ella may have dealt with a similar situation.

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“I’m always looking at ideas from elsewhere. Steal is another word. I watch games every weekend and you’re always trying to pick the best bits out that fit in to what I would see as my philosophy. All the while you’re trying to develop.

Leo Cullen Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“As a player over a long period of time, I’ve always looked at head coaches; how they run the organisation, how they run the week, how they interact with players. It’s an ongoing education through the course of my career.

“I’ve often thought about it in great depth. Even when I was playing I spent a bit of time and went to look at different environments in the southern hemisphere. With a view to go in to coach.

“I think it’s important that you’re learning from different places, from different things. Not just in rugby, but I spent some time with rugby league teams too.

“All the while you’re trying to build up that bit of experience, so we’ll see how it all pans out.”

- Originally published on 20 August, updated at 9.15 on 21 August.

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Sean Farrell

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