Across The Laighin: Leo Cullen reflects on the season that was
July 20, 2021 11:13 am Marcus Ó Buachalla
‘Across The Laighin’ is the magazine published exclusively for the benefit of Official Members.
The third and final edition went live at the end of the season and over the coming days we will be giving Leinster Rugby supporters access to excerpts from some of the interviews and feature pieces.
In the first such piece, we sat down with Leinster Rugby head coach Leo Cullen to look back on an extraordinary 12 months, the impact of Covid-19 and his hopes for the season ahead with a new competition and four new teams joining the party.
When the doors of the Leinster Rugby gym shut on Friday, June 18, 2021, it brought to an end a season like no other.
Unlike the 2019/20 campaign, which did feature crowds for the majority of the season, the 2020/21 season was bereft of supporters apart from two small footnotes at the beginning and end of the season.
October 10, 2020, in Stadio Monigo, and 1,000 Benetton Rugby fans for the visit of Leinster. And June 11, 2021, in the RDS Arena, where there was 1,200 Leinster Rugby fans for the visit of the Dragons.
Before Leinster Rugby head coach Leo Cullen plots a few weeks of well-earned downtime, he took the time to look back on a helter skelter 51-week season.
But we might as well start at the end.
“That week when it all came to a close was unbelievable,” recollects Cullen on the week when domestic rugby followed the international game into hibernation and when the term ‘lockdown’ became a part of the modern vernacular.
“It was funny because it was there, wasn’t it? Covid-19 was in the background and the first wave of restrictions had been brought in but it hadn’t quite impacted on us as a team yet.”
Indeed while northern Italy went into lockdown on March 8, Leinster Rugby had just come off a good win against Glasgow in the PRO14 and were on a well-deserved break but the plan was to resume. Then things started to change drastically for everyone in society.
That game against Glasgow was on February 28, and the day after that game, the first Irish case of Covid-19 was reported.
By March 12, the first temporary closures had been announced by the Irish Government with schools, colleges and childcare facilities to close their doors.
Speaking from Washington, the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, confirmed that events, both indoors and out, were also cancelled leaving huge question marks over the sports industry.
Only two days later, on March 14, Leinster had been due to fly to South Africa for a two-match tour.
“As a club we were working our way through the Six Nations period first, a good chunk of players were away and we had had a break as well which was good but all the time we were keeping an eye on this thing that was brewing elsewhere.
“Ahead of us then after our break was the trip to South Africa and all the talk was still that it could go ahead. We had Cheetahs first up and then the Kings. That was on the horizon for us and we were planning for it.
“We were leaving on the Saturday – the 14th – but then as that week unfolded, the seriousness of Covid and the impact it was having around Europe was intensifying and the scenes we were all seeing were, quite frankly, unbelievable.
“There was a board meeting called for the Thursday, the 12th, and I was talking to our medical people as well and it was just accelerating so quickly at that stage.
“The chat with the board was very simple by then and it was pretty much around ‘I’m not sure this is a good idea for us to travel on Saturday to South Africa, what are our options?’
“By then some businesses and offices started to close so it was becoming obvious that it would impact upon us at some stage, it was just a question of when.
“But even as that Thursday unfolded, things were changing minute by minute it felt like, so we trained that day but then, that evening, it all changed for everyone.
“Lockdown was essentially called from Washington and that was that.”
By March 24, the Olympics was postponed and very quickly everywhere followed suit and full lockdown was called for in Ireland on March 27.
With that went any chance they might have been holding that their season could be back within a short period of time.
“South Africa fell but so too did the rest of our planning and preparations.
“Obviously it was completely the right thing to do but at the time, I think a lot of people thought that this will be a few weeks and we’ll see but it quickly became apparent that that wouldn’t be the case. The numbers were frightening.
“Everything was on the fly at that stage. Trying to make sure that all our players are catered for even though we didn’t know how long it would be.
“Our backroom team were unbelievable during it all. Charlie Higgins, Garreth Farrell, Cillian Reardon, Diarmaid Brennan, Daniel Davey, all of them really. Our doctors of course and the great work that Prof. John Ryan did throughout it all. Unbelievable.”
If there was one word to encapsulate how the time from there played out for them all, it was agility.
The players and staff needed to stay agile and willing to react to whatever was thrown at them and whatever schedule played out.
“Originally, May 18 was the date we started to work towards and coming back with a view to finishing the season but even those early dates got pushed and pushed and eventually it was June 2 before we got back in to train but at that stage the season plan was completely changed and we had the interpros followed by a semi-final and a final.
“Then that played into the European quarter-final, finishing out the Six Nations and then that leading into the November Series and the various formats of the new season that followed.
“So there were so many bits going on everywhere but definitely in those early days or early weeks there was that hope of finishing out the season but pretty quickly it became clear that a new model would be required for that finish.”
The conversation around Covid-19 with Cullen is regularly interrupted with an appreciation by the former Leinster and Ireland lock, that there were other industries and other walks of life and indeed families, that were impacted in a far greater way than the players and staff at Leinster Rugby.
Jobs were lost. Lives were lost.
The Lucky Ones
Cullen appreciates that the Leinster Rugby concerns and complaints were in the ha’penny place in the grand scheme of things and that they were at least able to come back and train and to see each other when others were not.
They were the lucky ones.
The return when it did happen coincided with a parting of ways for many servants of the club that didn’t get the ovation that Cullen would have loved for them.
“Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden obviously were able to stay and play on but I do think of the players that left and didn’t get to have that send-off or that final chance to play in the jersey.
“It was great that Rob and Ferg made it onto the stage and seeing them lift the trophy, two brilliant servants to the club but I am mindful of the other players that were left in limbo.
“Joe Tomane, Barry Daly, Bryan Byrne had moved to Bristol at that stage, but just players that you would have loved for them to have had a day where their efforts could have been acknowledged and appreciated but instead they finish in that limbo and move on.
“That is always the biggest concern for us as a club; the people. We want to push on and be successful and all the rest but we are always mindful of the people that contribute to that success across a season, across multiple seasons and wanting to do right by them.
“I felt for those lads.”
As great as it was to be back, there was still a huge amount of uncertainty. So what did that return look like?
“The mental challenge was the biggest factor I think for the players and the challenge posed by the question: ‘What am I training for?’
“We did a day where we shared insights with the Army Ranger Wing a few years back and we used some of the knowledge we gathered that day for this very situation.
“Look at them and the work they do at an elite level. Training away on a daily basis, getting ready at an elite level but never knowing when they will be needed or indeed what they will be needed for.
“They compare it to preparing for the Olympics but not knowing what event you will be competing for! So that’s the analogy they use and that we leaned on as well.
“I think looking back on it our guys were very good and when left to their own devices you want to see guys that are self-reliant and self-motivated and by and large, we saw that which is very satisfying for us as a coaching group because they have to be able to stand on their own two feet out there on the pitch.
“They had support, of course, and whether it was getting equipment to them or applying a programme to an individual player, our backroom team did brilliantly to equip them as best they could depending on the level of space.
“The other element is that it was nice for a lot of the players to spend that time away from the game and away from the physicality of it and just to spend more time with family than they normally would. Although that novelty wore off pretty quick for everyone in lockdown too!
“It was a crazy time that’s for sure but communicating with the players and making sure they were OK was a key part to it also.”
As he now looks back on that time and all that has happened since March 12, 2020, does he see positives?
“I think the technology piece was definitely a plus. There was certainly some weariness towards the end of the season, again for everyone in society, around Zoom or Teams calls or what have you but by and large that technology piece and staying connected was a plus.
“To stay connected without meeting and opening all our eyes to that was good. Of course there are disadvantages to that too but we are more open to it now I think.
“I think it also forced us all to prioritise because you can be a busy fool, can’t you? So it was important that whatever we started with was sustainable. All these meetings, it’s important that you are quite specific in terms of what you want to achieve.
“As I mentioned already it was important that people had a proper break too. That they used the time, rest up and recharge so that when we had the plan for the resumption, that they were good to go. That was a positive.
“We were very mindful too that we were going to have to play catch-up somewhere when we did come back so that rest and recharge piece was a focus for us.”
For all the planning, playing ‘catch-up’ was interesting as he concedes.
It was six months between the Glasgow match in February and the Munster match in an empty Aviva in late August.
Over the next five weeks they would play two interpros against Munster and Ulster, a semi-final against Munster and a PRO14 final against Ulster before turning their attention to the European quarter-final against Saracens.
All the games behind closed doors at the Aviva Stadium.
“When we did come back if you remember it was straight into ‘finals rugby’, straight into knock-out games which would be very unusual for all the teams involved.
“Those big games, they take a toll on players and we saw it in the TOP14 and in the English Premiership over the last few weekends of the season. Massive games and occasions at the end of a season but we had to try to get to that pitch straight away from an off-season and pre-season so definitely challenges there and we probably learned a few costly lessons along the way.”
The 2021/22 season will bring a new domestic tournament in the United Rugby Championship which will replace the PRO14 and will see the introduction of four new South African teams in the form of the Lions, Sharks, Stormers and Bulls.
The first weekend of the new URC will kick-off on the last weekend in September.
There will also be change in the Heineken Champions Cup or rather the retention of the format that was in place this season and the 24 competing teams split into two groups of 12, with four matches during the pool stages.
Leinster Rugby will be among the top seeds for the draw with the first pool games to be played on the weekend of December 10/11/12.
Cullen is enthused by what lies ahead and whatever about new teams and tournament draws, he feels the supporters being back next season is the missing piece of the jigsaw.
“I’m still energised by the last memories I have of the RDS last season and the 1,200 supporters and the proper tingle that I got down the back of my neck when the players ran out to the blue and the flags again.
“That has really been the missing piece and I really think the point of difference for us is the support when you think of some of the best days that this club has ever had; it’s the support.
“Massive play-off games whether that’s at home in the RDS or the Aviva or on the road. Bilbao still jumps out for me and you’re playing a team so far from home and yet it’s like you are the home team.
“And I genuinely think that when you are winning off the field, you have a much better chance of winning on the field.
“We saw in Newcastle that it doesn’t guarantee you a win but even that day and the blue that greeted us for that final, we definitely won it off the field even if we couldn’t quite match it on the field. But I genuinely believe that the role of supporters is crucial and getting them back next season is vital not only for us as a club, but for rugby.
“The sustainability of the sport as a business is wrapped up in its support too so it is vital we return to full stadia quickly next season, obviously in a safe manner but I think we have shown at the RDS that it can be done.
“We look forward to those days definitely.”
He will take to the field next year confident in the group that he has assembled and retained.
Mike Alaalatoa and Nick McCarthy have been added, a further 17 players have been retained to new contracts and Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong have all signed national contracts.
Added to the fact that his senior coaching team have also signed new contracts, it’s stability in UCD at a time of great change everywhere else.
And when the first group of players report back for duty at the end of July, there will again be the sense of optimism and hope that greets every new season.
“Everyone starts afresh after their staycations and like everyone we’ll all come back here in a few weeks and we’ll all have new ambitions and new dreams and all have a desire to achieve those.
“There really is a sense of excitement and buzz because there is no selection at the weekend! There is no pecking order established and the training piece becomes hugely important.
“But very quickly we will start prepping for games and that Harlequins game in pre-season is scheduled at the moment and that will be a chance for players to put their hands up and that momentum will sustain a lot of players for a while but then others will come back in and the Ireland players will come back and the Lions.
“And we’ll go again!
“Who knows where that will take us but a new competition and a new schedule will bring the focus and the challenge up a notch and very quickly we will be into managing our way through the calendar and trying to pick up as many points as possible for the end of the season positions and qualification for Europe.
“The dynamics of Europe will be different, less games around the Six Nations, the challenges there and those tweaks, what impact will it have on the peaks and the troughs. Plenty of variables but it’s up to us be in a position, to be in a good position to challenge in the knock-out games.
“Ultimately that’s where we want to be. In the knock-out games but important that we have enough juice to win those games too because ultimately, it’s no good peaking for a quarter-final as maybe we did this year against Exeter.
“We will look back at this year and the various stages and that’s the question we will ask; at what point did we peak? It’s trying to stay the course.”
But staying the course next season can wait.
As he collects his keys and heads for the door, there is only one thing on his mind.
“The sunny south-east and Wexford and getting out and about. Around Ireland with the family is the plan and we’ll see where we end up!
“See how many counties we can visit during the course of it. But I’ll always have one eye on some of the games and how the lads are getting on.
“But I’ll take a break for sure and when the time is right, we’ll all be back refreshed and excited and ready to go!”