'Sometimes change has to happen. That’s just the way it is'

Leo Cullen says change is an unavoidable aspect of professional rugby amid speculation Stuart Lancaster is set to join Racing 92.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Updated Sep 23rd 2022, 8:41 AM

AS THE RAIN pelted down at the RDS yesterday, the Leinster squad ran through their Captain’s Run ahead of their first home game of the season, with Benetton in Dublin this evening for a United Rugby Championship round two clash.

It very much looked like business as usual, but these are relatively uncertain times for the province. 

Leo Cullen’s squad have spent the last month getting familiar with new attack coach Andrew Goodman and their new contact skills coach, returning Leinster legend Sean O’Brien, following a summer of change on the coaching staff.

Then came this week’s reports that Stuart Lancaster’s long-touted move to Racing 92 at the end of the season is close to being wrapped up. Lancaster has been a major success in the senior coach role at Leinster but is out of contract at the end of the season.

With Mick Dawson stepping down as Leinster CEO and Johnny Sexton set to retire next year, that’s a lot of influential figures exiting the province.

Speaking before Racing’s director of rugby Laurent Travers confirmed the club were in talks with Lancaster yesterday, Cullen was coy on the subject of his right-hand man’s future. However, he didn’t shy away from the fact that change among the coaching and playing staff is an unavoidable part of the job for any team operating at the top level of the game.

“The transitional phase is always there. It moves on so quickly,” Cullen said.

“The big thing for me is always the people part, so you get the good people in place and great things can happen then.

“We’ve been very lucky that we’ve great players, young players that come into the group, support staff are very caring and work their arses off throughout the season and will do whatever it takes really to help the players be as good as they can be on the weekends when they to play in front of you guys and the supporters and all the rest, family and friends.

“Obviously 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 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. That’s just the way it is.”

Lancaster wouldn’t be the first elite coach to be enticed away from Ireland, where the club game operates very differently to the likes of England and France. The upcoming Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa is the latest example of the international picture taking priority over the provinces, with Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster all about to lose the services of a string of young players for a number of weeks.

Cullen accepted the balance can be challenging at times, but was keen to stress that Leinster’s problems very much pale in comparison to some of the issues across the water, where both Worcester and Wasps find themselves in worrying times amid a financial crisis in English club rugby. 

“We know the model (in Ireland) is quite complicated because it feeds into a national team,” Cullen explained.

“At different stages that’s the priority for all the right reasons, as we know, and then at different times of the year the provinces take centre stage or the clubs/provinces.

“So it all has to work together. It’s not straightforward but it’s exciting. There’s never that many dull days, which is good. You walk into the office each morning and thinking ‘it should be a quiet enough day today’ but something will always crop up somewhere.

stuart-lancaster Lancaster is believed to be close to agreeing a move to Racing 92. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

“But that’s the dealing with the people part, and off the back of the success then there’s other clubs come in and they’re interested in who’s doing our S&C or who’s your physio or who’s your coach in X department or who’s your Comms’ manager, who’s doing your recruitment? In all those parts, there’s always that level of interest. So, you deal with fallout.

“Everyone is going to make different career choices and all the rest. Lots of different industries are experiencing that post-pandemic, we were all sat at home questioning what we’re doing and all that stuff. It’s a funny period we’re living in, isn’t it?

“Still, let’s try and focus on the most important thing for us at the moment which is getting a group of players ready to play against Benetton.

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“Hopefully we get that big crowd and a real excitement of playing here on a Friday night, that’s what we want is 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. When you think about how I started off in that first season and Wasps (beating Leinster) out there (at the RDS), 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, 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.”

There’s no denying that Leinster’s latest headache is a mild one compared to some of the problems affecting clubs in England.

Still, losing a prized asset is always a challenge. If Lancaster does decide to end his time with Leinster, he won’t be easily replaced. 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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