‘Leo always had a capacity to stay calm and make good logical assessments’

WHILE MOST OF the chat this week ahead of Leinster’s clash with La Rochelle has been around Ronan O’Gara, it is also the latest challenge for another excellent Irish coach.

Leo Cullen is a year younger than O’Gara but already has an impressive list of honours to his name as a head coach – a Champions Cup title, four Pro14 trophies, and a Pro14 coach of the season award.

Cullen isn’t as charismatic a presence with the media, nor does he have quite the same legendary status after his playing career, but he has made a great success of head coaching after a rocky start in 2015/16, when 43-year-old had been catapulted into the top job with his native province just a year after succeeding Jono Gibbes as Leinster forwards coach. 

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Gibbes is now director of rugby at La Rochelle – although he will join Clermont this summer – and was impressed at how Cullen steadied the ship in Leinster after that difficult first season. Cullen becoming a good coach has been no surprise to Gibbes after he had spent six years as Cullen’s forwards coach in Leinster.

“Certainly I think he was a big contributor to the tactics, the strategy, and the execution of the game plan while he was playing,” said Gibbes yesterday.

“I think his strongest attribute when he was playing was his ability to stay calm in high-pressure situations and to be able to logically assess and give direction. He transmitted a lot of calmness to the players around him and those kinds of character traits transition really well.

“Obviously there was a situation where he took over from Matt [O’Connor]. He brought through a lot of young guys at the same time. Leinster’s European campaign was difficult but, again, I think he showed who he was by staying pretty calm, taking a logical approach, transmitting good clear messages for everyone in the organisation and the team.

“Today, you see that fruit has really come to bear for him.

Leo Cullen took over as head coach in 2015. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I think coaching, managing, captaining, playing… he’s always had a capacity to stay calm and make good logical assessments and give direction.”

Of course, Stuart Lancaster came on board in 2016 and has been a big influence in Leinster. It took a humbleness from Cullen to accept he needed help and then reach out to Lancaster – a more experienced coach – to bring his skillset to the party.

“I think it comes down to the relationship, the environment, and what’s needed in that environment and I think history would say it’s been a fantastic collaboration with Leo and Stuart,” said Gibbes.

“Knowing the culture, as I say the environment has moved on, but knowing the culture of the place, people just want to get better, and I think they’ve complemented each other and it’s just continued to go from strength to strength.

“If you think about the standards of, for me 2012, a little bit of a regeneration and then they’ve gone up another level again. That’s a massive credit to everyone involved in that club, organisation, and those two leaders.”

Gibbes has a huge fondness towards Leinster after his spell there from 2008 to 2014, when the province won three Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup, and two Pro14 titles.

Leinster was his first club as a forwards coach and he moved on to Clermont in the same role in 2014 before a season with Ulster as head coach, a brief stint in charge of Waikato back in New Zealand, and then the La Rochelle gig from 2018.

While there is still plenty of love towards Leinster, Gibbes has only one thing in mind ahead of this weekend.

Gibbes has been with La Rochelle since 2018. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“When we saw the draw a few weeks back, it just brings back emotions,” said Gibbes. “I guess that’s the power of a positive experience. Straight away it follows an emotion and you remember all the things that you went through and the experiences that you had there.

“Yeah, we won trophies, and that was really an important part of it and that’s what high level sport is, but for me a lot of the experiences I had there go beyond that half an hour in the changing shed after the game after you’ve won.

“It goes beyond just that and I received a real education from Leinster and that’s something that I believe in a lot.

“I think it was formative, it was an important part of my career and my life and I’m really grateful for that, but I can assure you that it doesn’t diminish my desire to beat these guys on Sunday.”