Friday 20 July 2018

Isa Nacewa: Leo is the right man to take Leinster forward

New coach’s transparency has shone through all summer

Leo Cullen
Leo Cullen
Former team-mates Leo Cullen and Isa Nacewa preparing for a Heineken Cup match back in 2012

Isa Nacewa

If you look up from the gym floor in Leinster's headquarters at UCD you can see into the head coach's office and, over the course of the summer, there has been a steady stream of young players, more experienced lads and coaches calling in to talk to Leo Cullen.

He operates an open-door policy and being approachable is one of the strengths he brings to the role of head coach. Setting standards is another.

As a captain, he demanded absolute detail and player accountability when it comes to knowing your role in moves. As a coach, he has followed that through - he's hard on it and that is a good thing.

I arrived back in Ireland two weeks after the news Matt O'Connor would be leaving Leinster and everything was up in the air.

No one knew what was going on, but as interim coach Leo was just so calm and calculated about the whole thing. He was transparent with all of the players and the staff about everything that was going on.

He had done so much planning with Matt beforehand that he just rolled everything out and said, 'Look guys, this is the situation…' Leo being Leo, he just encouraged everyone to get on with it because the next thing we know it will be our first league game against Edinburgh.

Throughout the whole process, he didn't let it affect any of his coaching at all.

He's the right man for the job. Even he would say that he'd happily step aside if there was somebody out there who could do a better job, but he's taken the right approach to this whole thing and all of the players back him 100pc.

Read more: Cullen regime off to flying start

It starts with transparency about what's going on behind the scenes.


Leo has been so clear on the fact that we would be the first to know if there was any movement on him becoming head coach.

That's massive to the playing group, because the changing room at a rugby club can be like little girls gossiping at times. One story turns into another, names get thrown into the mix and within 24 hours that person might be getting the top job.

But Leo has always been up front, he has told us what was going on before we heard about it in the media.

On top of that transparency, it was important that we collectively got on with the job.

There's so much going on in the background that's beyond our control, we couldn't worry about it. It was up to us to integrate a whole bunch of new guys so that we can perform when the season starts.

That's made the transition very easy.

Leo has had to make the transition from playing to coaching quickly and it is a challenge I can empathise with.

Two years ago, when I returned to New Zealand, I found myself back in the classroom with some of my old Blues team-mates.

Read more: Alan Quinlan: My 31-man World Cup squad, with Dave Kearney, D'Arcy and Moore among the casualties

Instead of sitting with them, listening to a coach's presentation, I was the one at the top of the room and guys like Keven Mealamu, Jerome Kaino and Tony Woodcock were in front of me listening.

That trio alone have 301 All Black caps between them, but, more importantly, they are mates of mine and the challenge for all of us was to understand and manage the shift in the relationship. If you have a mutual respect for one another then you just get on with it the job. Winning's the ultimate goal.

I thought it was going to be a massive hurdle, but it wasn't as big as I had feared.

I don't think Leo finds it as hard either, because as a captain he had the most respect out of any of the players. We, as players, now give him that respect and would treat him as a head coach the same way we would anyone in the job.

You use your experience and bind together to win, he has to do that on a whole new level now.

The thing with Leo is that he was one of the most successful captains in Europe, winning three Heineken Cups and he was essentially a coach as a captain anyway.

Within the changing-room, you felt so confident when he was the captain because he was such a calm and humble skipper, you always knew that he could roll it out and be a coach.

It's no different now that he is on the other side of the fence. I can still see how his calm approach as a captain has transferred into his coaching style. He'd even tell you that getting the job now is somewhat premature, but he is confident in himself and all of the players see that as well.

It is great, too, that the coaching group know what Leinster stands for.

Leo is a Leinster coach, Girvan Dempsey is a local legend, John Fogarty has won a Heineken Cup in a Leinster jersey, Kurt McQuilkin and Richie Murphy too…It means so much to them, just like it means so much to the players because they're from here and that's an absolute bonus.

They know what Leinster's about, they know what type of rugby Leinster want to play and who we are.

When you start with those core values in a coaching group it just filters down to the squad.

The focus now is on improving on the last two seasons.

Leo's been driving consistency. It might be a World Cup year. That starts from the younger group that we have, because we need to be in good shape in the Guinness Pro12 when the other players come back.

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