Coaching role a 'natural progression' for Cullen
EVER since news leaked that Jono Gibbes was heading for Clermont Auvergne the smart money has been on Leo Cullen filling the former All Black's shoes and, yesterday, his retirement from playing and accession to the Leinster forward's coach job this summer was confirmed.
The province's long-serving, decorated captain will bring down the curtain on his illustrious playing career in May after 15 seasons of professional rugby.
He will immediately begin the transition from player to coach where he will look to maintain the high standards he has helped set in turning the long-underachieving Blues into Europe's strongest force along with Matt O'Connor.
At 35, the lock is a veteran of 32 Ireland caps and more than 200 club appearances for Leinster and Leicester Tigers, has won three European Cups as captain, the Pro12 and the English Premiership.
The head coach believes Cullen was the obvious choice for the upcoming vacancy and believes the most successful captain in Heineken Cup history is a potential head coach of the future.
"Potentially, it's a little bit hard to ascertain at this stage," he said. "He's certainly a leader of men, he's got vast experience and rugby knowledge and I would imagine that he would be a very good head coach, it just depends how the thing twists and turns and how long he wants to be in the game.
"Leo's been an unbelievable leader for the organisation on and off the field. I think given that Jono is moving off to Clermont, I thought it was the natural progression for Leo.
"He's got all that knowledge, he understands what's required at the very top level and I'm really looking forward to working with him.
"You don't have to talk to people for too long to understand whether they'll be able to do it or not.
"Leo's demonstrated that he's certainly got the knowledge. When you sit down and have the conversation with him, the genuine excitement and student of the game that he is, you know he will thrive in the environment."
Cullen's impending retirement will continue a process of transition at Leinster that will see a number of the men who made the province so successful step aside.
Brian O'Driscoll is another who will step down at the end of the season and O'Connor is attempting to bring through members of the province's lauded academy to fill some of the biggest boots in Irish rugby.
"There's a fair bit of change, some very talented people who left last year and a few experienced guys who are in the process of moving on," the Australian said. "But, we're pretty lucky that the Academy guys train side by side with the senior group and they understand the values and the culture that you must have to be good.
"The kids that are good get the cultural stuff every day, so it puts us in a good place, but whether you can replace those (once-in-a) generation players, those iconic players overnight is a challenge. At the same time, there's a lot of talent in that academy group."
The immediate focus for Cullen and O'Connor is arresting the side's relative slump in form since their emphatic win at Northampton three weeks ago.
Having lost to the Saints at Lansdowne Road, a much-changed Leinster slipped up away at Edinburgh on Friday night and now face Ulster in the first of two tough derbies on Saturday night. After a "disappointing" fortnight, the coach says the rematch of the Pro12 final has taken on extra importance.
"It's really important, it becomes -- even at the half-way stage of the season -- a pivotal game in the season relative to where we're at and relative to Europe as well as it being a derby."
The team, he says, are still getting to grips with the changes he has made since taking over from Joe Schmidt.
"A little bit," he conceded. "There's different nuances that go with it and slightly different combinations with a few guys. That always takes a bit of time, but I think the guys have a good understanding of what we need as a team and for the large part they're doing that."
Keeping Cullen on board for the next few seasons will help that process as Leinster look to sustain their success with a new generation of players.
But the captain will be focusing on on-pitch matters for the time being.