As a man more than familiar with the slings and arrows that can follow even the least outrageous fortunes of professional sport, Leo Cullen is a good place to start when assessing Joe Schmidt’s legacy.
The Leinster head coach was Schmidt’s captain when the New Zealander decamped from France in 2010, moving from understudy to lead role, treading the boards alone for the first time.
A slow start followed, with a few slings loaded in his direction, but eventually it was seen that the province had unearthed a real gem, as the murals on the walls of Leinster’s Dublin headquarters show — two of the three photos of Cullen raising the European Cup came on Schmidt’s watch.
He segued from club rugby to test rugby and ended years of troubles by repeating his success on a new stage. Back-to-back Six Nations titles flowed effortlessly and in some style, with a third — and a grand slam to boot — soon to follow.
Curse-breaking wins over his homeland led to an informal coronation that eventually placed his face on Irish stamps, while victories in South Africa and Australia ensured his worth was known far beyond these shores.
But — and as Cullen knows there’s always a but — what of that World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina in 2015? Injuries, career-ending injuries at that, and suspension combined to hurl outrageous misfortune Ireland’s way and Schmidt’s team went the way of every team before them — out before the colour of medal is discussed.
He’d earned another shot at it, and Ireland begged him to take it, which he did after rebuffing the most seductive of approaches from New Zealand rugby. Ireland, Joe, and Johnny picked up all the big awards at last year’s World Rugby gala, and Steve Hansen was forced to consider if Ireland would be favourites at this year’s tournament.
But after last weekend, whither Joe’s legacy now? Another World Cup quarter-final, another humbling defeat. But no third time lucky. This time the final whistle was truly final — the last one blown in anger in Schmidt’s Ireland reign. A black mark?
“I don’t think so,” Cullen said, “It’s not going to change what he has achieved. He has achieved a huge amount in the game. Nothing is going to change that, in terms of the success he has had here [Leinster] and the success he has had with Ireland as well. He’ll move on to a new challenge, I’m sure.”
Is there a strong sense of sympathy for him that it ended this way?
“I’m gutted for all of them really if you see how much work goes into the group ... but nothing changes all Joe has achieved in the game. He’s the most successful coach Ireland has had in terms of his win ratio and lots of big days along the way.”
As was the case four years ago, Cullen has more to deal with than worrying about Schmidt. His premature entry to the role of head coach came in 2015, when he was immediately tasked with picking up the pieces of Ireland’s first quarter-final disaster. It didn’t go well.
Leinster, one of the game’s true heavyweights, were out of Europe before Christmas and question marks hung low over Cullen’s head. Valuable experience four years on?
“No one is ever smarter than the game and for us we can’t get too clever ourselves, we need to make sure that (we are right). Everyone assumes that we won’t be as bad as we were four years ago. What’s to say otherwise?
“We had the players back roughly at the same time, we were going well in the PRO14 but we lost at home to Wasps, away to Bath, and then pretty quickly after that we had Toulon back to back; both of those games we lost as well.
“We just need to be careful that we ensure that we are doing everything within our control to get guys back on track with us.”
Cullen was part of the Ireland squad that lost in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final, and so knows just how the returning Leinster players will feel.
“Losing a quarter-final is as big as it gets really. The guys will have various different levels of involvement in that game. When you are a starter, you feel much more responsible for it all. That’s just me making observations generally. On the specifics, those are the guys who are out there. I have no idea what it is like, the involvement in the game.
“For us, it’s filling in the pieces. We will try to pull information from the players, get a better gauge on what they experienced, what’s been good, what’s been bad.”
Schmidt good, quarter-finals bad. If only it were that simple.