Leo Cullen prioritising culture over results in likely search for Lancaster’s replacement

Leinster head coach says there are many ways of judging success beyond trophies

If there is a silver lining for Leinster in their apparent time of chassis it is that they have nine months to find a replacement for Stuart Lancaster should, as seems certain, he takes over the reins at Racing 92 next season. What’s more, they have a proven track record of finding the right coaches ever since they plucked Michael Cheika from relative obscurity in 2005, and in doing likewise when appointing Joe Schmidt in 2010.

All the noises from the camp are that Andrew Goodman and Seán O’Brien have made a very positive impact since becoming assistant coach and contact skills coach in place of the departed Felipe Contepomi and Denis Leamy.

Most likely the Leinster hierarchy have yet to identify their ideal candidate, but the province’s global status ensures they won’t be short of options.

Admittedly, the impending departure of Mick Dawson in November after 21 months as CEO, and this being Johnny Sexton’s last season, adds to the upheaval. But one constant has been Leo Cullen, and while he is again on a one-year rolling contract, the likelihood is that he will remain a steady hand on the tiller.


“The transitional phase is always there,” he maintained on Thursday when declining to comment on ‘speculation’ regarding Lancaster’s future. “The big thing for me is always the people part, so you get the good people in place and great things can happen then.”

Cullen was secure enough in his own skin to bring Lancaster aboard following a difficult first season at the helm in 2015-16 when promoted to succeed Matt O’Connor, just a year after retiring as Leinster’s most successful captain of all time.

“When I started off in this role, I was given this caretaker title, which is sort of the way I still feel, it’s like a caretaker-type role. At the time I remember I was struggling to think of how many successful caretakers there had been over the years in any sport, but here we are still.

“But I’ve had unbelievable support from the club, and some of the coaches that have been in have been outstanding, and that’s the way we want it to be forevermore.

“But it’s always in some level of transition, isn’t it? Like, the Mick [Dawson] one. Yeah, Mick moving on is big because he’s been a sort of institution really, when you think of the early days of professionalism and all the different steps along the way.

“Again, sometimes change has to happen,” Cullen said, citing the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll. “He’s one of the top players but the show rolls on. That’s what happened. Someone else steps in,” he added, noting Garry Ringrose would captain the side against Benetton.

“The big thing is making sure we’ve doing everything we can to broaden the base of talent, particularly young playing talent. But, also, that they’re trying to live the right values and representing the club and the brand, so to speak, and everything wider that fits into that as well. That’s the bigger piece for me, always.”

After last season’s first trophy-less campaign in six years, Cullen struck a similarly phlegmatic tone when noting only one team can win either the URC or Champions Cup.

“Do we always define success as winning trophies or do we look to other things? Do we look at seeing X amount of Leinster guys going on to represent Ireland and play in New Zealand or play in Six Nations games or whatever, or go on an Emerging Ireland tour? What does success actually look like?

“I suppose we were on a decent run when you think, what, five trophies in the previous four years, none last year, so it depends what way you look at it. Five over five years? How far do you go back to suit a narrative for yourself?

“But ultimately there’s the day-to-day piece which is the foundation of what everything is built on. If you just focus purely on the trophy part, then certain poor behaviours would probably be accepted beneath it which will eventually erode the whole culture of the organisation anyway.”

Noting the changing priorities between the Irish team and the provinces, Cullen said there’s never a dull day in his job, and their success means that rivals will invariably be tracking their coaches and players. But the most important challenge was Benetton on Friday evening.

As the rain cascaded down on the RDS after their captain’s run, Cullen said dryly: “I believe the weather is going to be better than it is here - don’t look out the window!

“Hopefully we get that big crowd and a real excitement of playing here on a Friday night. That’s what we want, guys going out and connecting with the fans. We need the product. Look at some of the clubs in England at the moment. At Wasps – jeepers,” he said of the financially imperilled Premiership club.

Reflecting on his first European game as head coach, a 33-6 defeat by Wasps at the RDS, Cullen said: “It’s very vivid. I was thinking ‘wow, what am I in for here?’ That’s us versus Wasps. Look at us now.

“What does success look like for Wasps back then versus now, as an example? It has to have sustainability. For some clubs it’s about keeping the lights on and being alive at the start of next year maybe. It depends where you sit sometimes.”

Cullen was also in relatively sanguine mood about his house being burgled last Monday night, imploring anyone who sights his Leinster bag, complete with passport, laptop and most of all his notes, return said items to him.

When reminded of Bundee Aki leading a delegation of Connacht players who retrieved Robbie Henshaw’s laptop in Galway during the 2015-16 season, Cullen laughed and said: “I must get in touch with Bundee and see if we can get the vigilante group back together again.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times