LEINSTER coach Leo Cullen’s attempt to recruit Celtic supporters to his team’s cause on Saturday has been dismissed as crass by one of the Parkhead club’s most celebrated former players. Jim Craig won the European Cup with Celtic in 1967, and subsequently took a keen interest in rugby when his son James played for Glasgow and Scotland in the 1990s. Being all too well acquainted with the sectarianism associated with the country’s two biggest football clubs, he suggested yesterday that Cullen would have been better advised to steer clear of the issue.
The Irish province’s head coach made his remarks after his team had beaten Munster in the PRO14 semi-final to to go through to this weekend’s final against the Warriors at Celtic Park, saying: “The Glasgow players are all Rangers supporters, I’ve been told. Everybody in Glasgow should be supporting us, all Celtic fans for sure.”
Those words appeared to have been made at least partly tongue in cheek, and with mischievous rather than malevolent intent. Even so, Craig dismissed them as deeply unhelpful – and factually incorrect, pointing out that regardless of his own Celtic connections and Catholic background, he wanted the team from his own city to win.
“It’s nonsense, like a lot of things like that,” Craig, speaking at a press conference at Celtic Park, said of Cullen’s remarks. “But you’ve got to put up with it. If I ever meet Mr Cullen I’ll have a private word with him. He got publicity over his words, and maybe that’s what he was wanting.
“As a Glaswegian born and bred I’m all for Glasgow – although I have an Irish background on one side as well. I’m willing the Warriors to do well on Saturday.
“It’s very curious. In my own background on one side I’m an obvious Scot, the Craigs, but on the other side I have Irish background – but it’s from Ulster and Connacht, not from Leinster. I don’t think my antecedents would necessarily be supporting Leinster anyway. They would have been supporting Ulster last weekend, but that wasn’t a very good day for them,” he said, referring to the Warriors’ 50-20 win over Ulster in the first semi-final.
“Unfortunately when you have a game here it will raise its head,” Craig continued. “That fellow Cullen is the man who started it all by saying things like that. Unfortunately, wherever you go you do get the questions. It might take generations to disappear, but let’s hope one day it does.
“We’re hidebound by tradition, aren’t we? When I was a kid, unfortunately there was a religious bias against people of my religion playing for Rangers. Thank God that all changed and now Rangers will sign anybody and it doesn’t make the slightest difference where they come from. It has never made the slightest difference to me. If people could just treat it like that, the world would be a better place.”
A club for all
Speaking later in the afternoon at Scotstoun, Warriors coach Dave Rennie struck a diplomatic note when asked about Cullen’s remarks. “He’s a good man, Leo – I like him,” Rennie said. “Our thinking is that we’ve got lots of players who support different football sides, based on where they originate from.
“We have a heap of football fans who come and watch us play because they enjoy the entertainment and that’s what we’re looking for. Obviously, we represent Glasgow and we hope that regardless of what support you’re involved in you’ll want to be there for what should be a fantastic occasion.”
Craig, who practised as a dentist after retiring from football and is now 76, also believes the game should be played in an excellent atmosphere. “It’s going to be a great venue for the game. The Celtic Park I played in was spread out, where the terraces were shallow. Now they’re sheer, which really creates a wonderful atmosphere for any game. And if you get, they’re predicting 35,000 upwards, it will be an amazing atmosphere here.”
Whatever the eventual crowd, it is sure to be bigger than the one that turned out around a century ago for a rugby league international – thought to be the last time that either code was played at Parkhead. Craig, a keen student of sporting history, had all the facts about that game at his fingertips.
“The stats for that are absolutely fantastic. They were away from home, from Australia, for six weeks out and six weeks back, so that’s three months out of your life for a start. Do you know how many games they played on their tour? They played 42 games. That’s incredible, by the way, absolutely incredible number of games.
“The one here was between the Kangaroos and a team representing Great Britain: 3,000 were here and it ended up 17-17. It was a long time ago, so it’s nice to have rugby back here again.”