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How Cullen has gifted Leinster a title-winning dynasty

Leinster 15 Racing Paris 12

By Staff Reporter

The story of Leinster Rugby can be told through the prism of Leo Cullen, yet the lead protagonist prefers the shadow to the limelight.

When he emerges from the dressing-room beneath the gleaming San Mames Stadium he does so with the same implacability as he does when his team have just won a routine league game against Treviso.

He was there during the long winter of underachievement and, after his spell with Leicester, he was the leader of Leinster 2.0, the winning machine.

As captain he lifted the old Heineken Cup three times and then when he and his generation retired he went behind the scenes to do the rebuilding job.

Six years after he raised the old trophy aloft, he looked on as Isa Nacewa, Jordi Murphy and Johnny Sexton did the honours. As a coach he is removed from the battleground, but his fingerprints are all over this victory as Leinster 3.0 came of age.

His place in history was already assured as the only man to captain three winning sides, now he adds the honour of becoming the first man to play for and coach a team to the title.

Beneath his unruffled exterior he is beaming with pride as he assesses a success that will stand the test of time. "I was overjoyed, really, overjoyed. I was delighted for the players... a sense of relief," he said.

"It was a pretty incredible feeling. It might not seem that when you talk to me now, but at that moment... I have never experienced anything quite like it to be honest.

"When you are a player it is very different because you are in the mix, you are doing things; it's a very different feeling.

"From a coaching point of view it is a bit more mentally challenging, so I'm just delighted for all the people who are involved... ultimately, our fate is decided by the 15 guys on the pitch at any given time and those guys, credit to them, they found a way.

"It wasn't necessarily the way we would have liked to have played, but they found a way to win the game. It was winning pretty ugly, but we said it inside, maybe that's what made it a little bit more sweet in many ways because it was as ugly as it was."

After a raucous run to the final, the showpiece itself was a slug-fest of epic proportions; a series of battles for every possession that culminated in Remi Tales' unconvincing injury-time drop goal drifting wide of the target.

The scenes on the pitch were mirrored in the coaches' box, where the relief of 80 taut minutes was released in a split second.

This is where Leinster feel they belong, but for six long years they were forced to watch on as Toulon and Saracens ruled the roost.

Now they stand alongside Toulouse as the most successful club side in Europe.

Nacewa retires after his fourth title, but Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Devin Toner will return to the start line to target a fifth to put them out in front alone.

Over the course of a decade they have become Europe's dominant force and they have no intention of stopping at a quartet of stars on the jersey.

"It seemed like Toulouse were that club that were going to kick on," Cullen said.

"You have to keep chipping away, keep trying to get better. I suppose there's a lesson in that too; don't stop at four.

"Toulouse have had their troubles over the years with some of the other threats and competition that has come in - 15 years ago there wasn't a Racing or a Toulon to worry about, La Rochelle have come in this year, Pau, Lyon... the landscape changes.

"You need to keep evolving all the time and keep getting better. Toulouse are a good lesson for us because if you sit still for too long, people will pass you by. We've had to wait so long to get to this stage again. Hopefully it won't be another six years.

"The desire levels are there. We're lucky we've got a great group of coaches, putting a huge amount of work in to make sure it gets better.

"Some great leaders as well. How we go without Isa is going to be a big challenge. He is such a key figure, someone is going to have to step up now because he is an amazing individual.

"I couldn't put into words how special he is in terms of his influence on the group and the club. That's something we need to figure out."

His view is shared within the dressing-room, where the desire to win is very real.

"You have to have a dream and a vision and the plan is to put a lot of stars on the shirt," Healy said. "Not four, not five, I want to see Leinster grow and be dominant in Europe for years.

"The crop that are coming through and long after I'm gone, now they'll be holding that and hopefully doing that.

"It's a bit of yin and yang (between the experienced players and the young guns). We've got a team with high expectations, we just kind of have a bit of guidance and then it's also on us to step up to the energy that they're bringing.

"That's class. Like, training is deadly, and then it's pretty fruitful when you get this sort of stuff."

The breakdown in the match-day 23 tells its own story. Only six players had previous experience of a final, the other 17 were winning this trophy for the first time.

Fourteen of those came through the province's academy, having grown up watching them win the European Cup, and for them this was about playing their own part in that tradition.

"This is only the beginning, to be honest with you," Jack Conan said.

"There are so many lads and even though it's unfortunate that the likes of Jordi are leaving, we have Dan (Leavy), James Ryan and all guys like that of a similar age and we have all played together for a few years already.

"This is only the start and it's such an exciting prospect to see what these lads can do in the coming years."

LEINSTER: R. Kearney, Larmour, G. Ringrose, Henshaw, Nacewa, Sexton, L. McGrath, Healy, Cronin, Furlong, Toner, Ryan, Fardy, Leavy, J. Murphy.

Replacements: Gibson-Park for L. McGrath (62), J. McGrath for Healy (55), Tracy for Cronin (62), Porter for Furlong (66), Conan for J. Murphy (62).

Not Used: Ruddock, Carbery, O'Loughlin.

Racing 92: Dupichot, Thomas, Vakatawa, Chavancy, Andreu, Lambie, Iribaren, Ben Arous, Chat, Gomes Sa, Ryan, Nakarawa, Lauret, Le Roux, Nyanga.

Replacements: Tales for Lambie (3), Kakovin for Ben Arous (55), Avei for Chat (45), Johnston for Gomes Sa (55), Chouzenoux for Le Roux (69).

Not Used: Palu, Gibert, Rokocoko.

Ref: Wayne Barnes (England).

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