If there is a little twinkle in the eye of Leo Cullen as Leinster, the side he coaches, prepare to face Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun this weekend, it is because it will be his chance to get one over on Dave Rennie, the man who helped get him into coaching.
“I owe a lot to Dave Rennie,” he said. “When I was still playing, but contemplating going into coaching, I took a trip to New Zealand and he was one of the people I sought out.
“It all happened during the Six Nations window, when I had a bit of time to travel, in the season when I finished – when I played [and beat] Glasgow in the final, my last game of rugby. The Chiefs were a team I had admired from a very far distance.”
At that point, the former Ireland lock was thinking about coaching but all his knowledge of it came from the playing side – a position where you know what the men in charge are asking you to do, but don’t necessarily understand why.
That was why the trip to New Zealand was so important for him. It gave him the chance to get away from the playing environment he knew so well and start learning how to structure things as the man in charge. So he wangled an introduction and found Rennie, who was then in his third season with the Chiefs, open, friendly and more than willing to share.
“I wanted to see the Chiefs’ set-up, the ethos of their team, their culture and what they were doing in coaching terms,” Cullen recalled. “Wayne Smith [now an assistant coach with the All Blacks] and Tom Coventry [who later moved to London Irish] were there as well. The two of them were people I was keen to talk to as well.
“Some clubs are very open with information and they were unbelievably good. It was a great experience for me before I went into coaching. I met Dave [Rennie] again at the Pro14 launch a few weeks ago. He is a great coach and a good man; Glasgow have done incredibly well to get him.”
Now he has the chance to prove the pupil has now become the master when Leinster, who beat Montpellier in the opening round of the European Champions Cup and have the pedigree of three-times winners, take on Rennie’s Glasgow side, who lost to Exeter and have reached only one quarter-final.
History, Cullen insists, is irrelevant, however. Both teams are capable of producing a winning performance, the question is which produces it on the day.
“Everyone wants to be the best team in Europe, you take that as a given,” he said. “There was a time when we might have been the best team, but the landscape is different now.
“Glasgow and ourselves are similar. We both lose players at different times of the year. We have to be clever in the way we manage our players. That’s just a fact, so you just have to get on with it. We need to be smart in how we manage it to keep ourselves going in both competitions [the Guinness Pro14 and European Champions Cup].”
Not that it has always been a seamless transition for Cullen. His first season in charge saw Leinster drop from champions to failing to qualify for the play-offs. His second saw them fail to get out of their European pool for only the fourth time in the 15 seasons since they broke through. Last season, they reached the semi-finals in both tournaments.
“It has been a reasonably rapid rise for me, I suppose. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. Leinster have given me an amazing opportunity. It is a club I’m obviously very passionate about and want to do well with,” Cullen added.
“It comes with a lot of responsibility, but it is a great challenge. They are a great bunch of players who want to work hard. They know they have to keep showing those characteristics because the competition is getting harder and harder all the time.”