As soon as Leo Cullen walks in the Aviva Stadium door next Wednesday morning for the new season’s Champions Cup launch, the “Drive For Five” hype surrounding Leinster will ignite.
Winning last May in Bilbao elevated the Irish province onto the four times champions pedestal solely occupied by Toulouse since 2010, and all the midweek talk expected to emerge from Dublin will be how Cullen and co can successfully defend their title in Newcastle next May.
This wholesale optimism will make for change. Not so long ago, Leinster turned up at this annual pre-tournament event minus a spring in their step.
Take 2016. Four years had passed at that stage since a swashbuckling Joe Schmidt-coached Leinster completed its hat-trick of European triumphs, and belief a fourth title could be annexed any time soon was a million miles away due to Cullen’s disastrous first campaign.
They were unforgettably stuffed by Christmas 2015. Four successive defeats, toothless attack (just two tries scored in 320 minutes) and leaky defence (nine tries conceded) all horribly to blame.
Not since 1998, when Cullen was a callow kid taking second row baby steps, had European results been so desperate, and their winter to forget culminated in a humiliating 41-point January drubbing at Wasps. Embarrassing.
There was pity for the former skipper who had lifted the trophy three times. He’d only been thrust into the role he didn’t want because Matt O’Connor was unceremoniously sacked and his inexperience – just a single year as assistant – left him severely exposed.
Another losing campaign could have spelt his premature end. Instead, hope was kindled by a gutsy semi-finals run and with the cup then won in his third season, the 40-year-old is now unimpeachable at the head of an organisation capable of dominating for many years to come.
Cullen is clued into the potential. His three-fold objective for 2018/19 is to be the top team in Europe again, to maintain a band of brothers mentality and for his squad to be humble as they go about their work. That’s a clear warning to their Anglo-French Champions Cup challengers that they will not be easily dethroned.
Leinster’s admirable ambition, though, doesn’t begin and end with the 44-strong first-team playing squad backed up by a 19-strong academy at their University College Dublin headquarters. It’s rooted much deeper, the message filtering all the way down to the province’s grassroots where €4million is annually pumped in to cater for its 71,000 participants in 72 clubs and 560 schools across a 12-county hinterland.
One for all, all for one is the inspired mantra. Sit in on any of the multiple minis rugby coaching courses Leinster are currently conducting and the message is one of total inclusivity, that “you are one of us” and have a part to play in nurturing the young stars of tomorrow. They are actively selling this dream, that every entry-level volunteer coach can potentially play a part in helping the province stitch even more European champions stars over the club’s crest. That’s an enviable, octopus-like reach for hearts and minds which no Champions Cup rival can match.
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It wasn’t always this way. Previously there was a tendency for Leinster to be dismissively portrayed as a posh south Dublin-only set-up which exclusively sourced its talent from fee-paying schools. Even Leicester Tigers believed this to be true, the English Premiership club at one stage actively scouring the Irish capital in a bid to build partnerships with these expensive colleges.
However, not only were the Tigers warned off this schools scent eight years ago, but Leinster also set about cornering the market beyond their traditional south Dublin doorstep. An enormous roster of over 100 community coaches are now employed to daily spread the message in non-rugby areas, Cullen acknowledging this work last May when highlighting how 18 of the 21 player contracts signed were with players who played for clubs and schools around the province before making the grade professionally.
It’s the homegrown Leinster way, the “brothers bond” that has made them more than a match for French and English money. This flourishing two-pronged school and club production line is why they are comfortably absorbing hiccups such as the summer exits of Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy.
Sheer delight in watching fresh local talent emerge – the likes of Jordan Larmour and Dan Leavy head the latest list – is why 12,500 season tickets were sold during the recent off-season. If supporters were only interested in seeing seasoned stars such as Johnny Sexton, they would pick and choose their fixtures more carefully. Instead, they have signed up to watch Leinster’s every move regardless of week-to-week team selection and regardless of how antiquated the RDS is, one ancient stand fit for bulldozing and three other temporary structures all lacking in frills. These are basic facilities a world away from the creature comforts of Aviva Stadium where they host their biggest fixtures in front of 40,000-plus crowds, but the RDS loyalty they now tap into encapsulates the province’s remarkable transformation from the much-unloved entity they once were.
Average league attendance when Cullen quit as a player in 2005 to move to Leicester was only around 3,000, but there is now expectation even more than the current 12,500 repeat fans will snap up season tickets when the planned €20m redevelopment of the RDS increases capacity in a few years to 21,000.
‘I know I speak on behalf of the players when I say we’d love to play in front of a full house for every PRO14 fixture here at the RDS,’ wrote Cullen in his programme notes for the routine Saturday night dismissal of Edinburgh in front of 13,476. ‘Is that possible? We’d love to think so.’
Improved facilities and likely increased attendances will only strengthen Leinster’s strong hand. Numerous rival clubs repeatedly amass year-on-year debt, but Leinster turned a small profit on their €16m income last term and have achievable ambitions of growing that surplus as sponsors are queuing up to get on board the winning bandwagon.
All the while, Cullen is revelling in the success with a level head. August 2016 was the crucial month that transformed his fledgling tracksuit career, making him a real asset to Irish rugby worthy of consideration when Schmidt eventually departs the national team. No one will ever know how Leinster would have fared if Kurt McQuilkin, who quit for family reasons, stayed and Cullen went into his second season sticking by the same formula that failed in season one. However, presented the chance to try something different, his surprise recruitment of Stuart Lancaster was followed by an emboldened attitude to fully trust apprentice players.
It was why Cullen attended the 2016 European launch a few weeks after Lancaster’s arrival claiming Leinster were back even though the prevailing consensus was they were nowhere near the required level to succeed. ‘We have got lots of ambitious players that want to prove themselves at the highest level,’ he said at the time. ‘Sometimes having disappointment along the way is a good reminder how much this actually means to us. We want to be successful.’
Now they are unquestionably Europe’s No1 club and ready to embrace the ‘Drive for Five’ hype.
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