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Former Ireland internationals Cullen and McCall do battle in European final

Former Ireland internationals Cullen and McCall do battle in European final

Leinster and Saracens will go head-to-head on Saturday for the right to be crowned champions of Europe once again when they meet in a mouth-watering European Champions Cup final at St James’ Park.

A host of Guinness Six Nations stars will be on show as Leinster look to retain their trophy and stitch a fifth star to their shirt while Saracens bid for third European crown.

Saracens will be packed with England stars such as Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, along with Wales Grand Slam winner Liam Williams, for the showpiece finale.

Meanwhile, Leinster will be able to call on their Irish internationals such as Johnny Sexton, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Gary Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw to name just a few.

But while much of the focus will be on the pitch, there will also be a fascinating battle of minds off it as former Ireland internationals Leo Cullen and Mark McCall go up against each other.

Cullen transforms Leinster fortunes

Of the two bosses, Leo Cullen enjoyed more success during his playing career and captained Leinster to an unprecedented three Champions Cup victories before retiring in 2014.

The 41-year-old was somewhat thrust into the role of coach in 2015 and despite a turbulent start to his reign, he has since transformed the Irish province into one of the best sides in the world.

Cullen was Leinster’s forwards coach when he was parachuted into the top job following the sacking of Matt O’Connor and suffered a tough start in his first season.

They lost five of their six European pool games and were beaten by Connacht in the Guinness PRO12 final that season before Cullen began to turn the club’s fortunes around.

His gradual impact started to pay dividends in his second season in charge with two semi-finals, while the appointment of former England head coach Stuart Lancaster proved a masterstroke.

The unassuming Cullen also started to put his faith in the province’s young talent, resulting in Leinster claiming a remarkable Guinness PRO14 and European double last season.

Leinster’s victory against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final in Bilbao last year saw them claim a fourth crown and meant Cullen was the first man to lift the trophy as a player and coach.

And despite coming up against the top scorers in this year’s competition, Cullen insists he is not about to change Leinster’s approach as they close in on back-to-back doubles.

“It is a fine balance – you can’t be just thinking about the opposition,” Cullen said.

“You need to understand what makes Leinster a hard team to play against and what it took to get us to a final in the first place.

“The challenge is very different and we need to understand what the threat of this team is that we’re playing, just like every other week that we play.”

McCall breeds culture of success

Like his opposite number, Mark McCall prefers to keep a low profile.

Instead, his only focus has been on turning Saracens into one of the most formidable sides in the club game – something he has achieved during a remarkable period of success.

The Bangor native made 13 appearances for Ireland during his playing career, including making his first Championship appearance against Wales in a 17-15 defeat in 1994.

He also featured for his country against England in the 1996 Championship before making further Five Nations appearances against the Scotland and the Red Rose in 1998.

But while his impact on the international stage was fleeting, McCall came into his own after taking on the director of rugby role at Saracens midway through the 2010/2011 campaign.

Following stints as a coach for Ulster and Castres, McCall stepped up to take the job after working for two years as head coach under Brendan Venter, who returned home to South Africa.

The Men in Black went on to triumph in the Premiership final that season. But for McCall, the victory was just the start of a new dawn as he looked to instil a winning mentality.

And after a few seasons without silverware, his influence began to take hold as Saracens claimed back-to-back Premiership titles with victories in 2015 and 2016.

Success also followed in Europe as Saracens were crowned Champions Cup winners in 2016 and 2017, before also reclaiming their Premiership title from Exeter last year.

While Saracens are not known for their style, they are incredibly effective at applying pressure with their kicking and their celebrated ‘Wolf Pack’ defence.

The winning culture at the club has also been bought into by the players, with England international Richard Wigglesworth hailing the impact that McCall has on the team.

“He believes in what we do and when you have got someone who doesn’t waver from that belief, you never get a sense of him that he is thinking about doing things differently,” he said.

“There are always little tweaks in there but generally, he has belief in the organisation that he is running, and trusts his coaches and his players to get on with it.”