Edinburgh’s new coach tells a good story against himself from his time in charge of Leicester Tigers. Richard Cockerill used to write out the lineout codes longhand and photocopy them before distributing them to the forwards to learn. The England lock Ben Kay used to return his to the diminutive coach with all his spelling errors corrected in a red pen.
It seems unlikely that an Edinburgh forward will take similar liberties with Cockerill any time soon although that may change over time, presuming he is afforded that particular luxury. The Englishman has a three-year contract in his pocket but Edinburgh rugby has sullied more than one reputation. The last two (full-time) coaches, Michael Bradley and Alan Solomons, were both ushered out of the tradesman’s entrance midway through the season which suggests that it will take more than a roll of gaffer tape and some hope to fix all of Edinburgh’s myriad faults.
The little Englishman has already made an impact. The players breakfast together at 7.30am and appear to have taken to their new boss. For his part, Cockerill declared himself pleasantly surprised at the quality of player available to him even if his new squad can’t quite match the stellar wattage of his previous one, Toulon.
“From what I’ve seen, from my perception from the outside, they [the players] are better than what I thought,” was how Cockerill put it. “Hopefully I will start to drive the standards of where we need to be as a team.
“I think their basic skills are OK. You could take half a dozen of those players and put them in a French team or a Premiership team and they wouldn’t look out of place, but how hard are they willing to work?”
Faced with a new set of journalists to whip into shape, the new coach kept his message simple. He wanted his players to be the best that they could possibly be and he repeatedly referred back to a core of talented Scottish youngsters who he hopes will become the backbone of the club.
He name-checks the electric eel that is Darcy Graham, lock Callum Hunter-Hill and breakaway Luke Crosbie, all of whom starred for the successful national 20s team last season. The prop Murray McCallum got good game time last season and Blair Kinghorn has oodles of talent no matter his struggles last season. Jamie Richie, Hamish Watson and Magnus Bradbury all have what it takes and Cockerill points to another former Leicester player to show just what the right environment can do for someone’s career.
“Geoff Parling [moved] from Newcastle to Leicester. He sat on the bench for Newcastle and within 12 months [of moving] he was playing for England. The player is no different, it’s just the environment he is in.
“We have to change the environment [at Edinburgh], that’s the starting point. What environment they get every day, conditioning, medical, coaching, do they feel part of it, is there an emotional attachment?”
Cockerill’s emphasis on the environment/culture is surely the right way forward because Edinburgh are serial under-performers. The coach’s problems are not tactical or technical but rather they lie in persuading his players to unearth the best of themselves every match, not just when they are playing against Glasgow.
Edinburgh’s players think they work hard at the game but compared to successful sides like Saracens and Leinster, Glasgow and the Crusaders, they are only playing at professional rugby.
The older crew have had their chance and failed and the little Englishman is putting his faith in a core of young, talented Scots who have tasted success at age grade and are hungry for more.
“I would much rather bring those [young] guys through than have a journeyman that just sits at the level,” Cockerill explains. “I want guys who have a bit of growth in them, because how do you get that cultural identity if we don’t keep those young players coming through.
“If they grow up together in the next three, four or five [years], that’s a strong group of players, a bit like Glasgow who have grown up together in the last four, five, six years and they know what they are doing.
“Do we want to a group that is built on young Scottish players that will grow up together and will come through, with a bit of teething on the way, which means we’ll have some sh*t results, as we will, or do we just want to go down the line of we’ll go into the market place and spend twice as much money and just buy a team that will give us a success today? I think we all know the answer to that.”
Cockerill famously fell out with Clive Woodward when he coached England – he was dropped for his trouble – and his autobiography is even more scathing about the role of journalists. It may be a one-sided affair but journalists have taken to him. The Englishman is honest, interesting and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
“I am finding out that everyone seems to have a cap,” he says to general mirth before adding. “It’s funny because it’s true!”
He readily concedes that he doesn’t have all the answers and that things could go horribly wrong but he appeals for some balance and he recognises that, for a team in Edinburgh’s position, there are more important things than winning every week.
“There’s going to be some road-bumps along the way, we might go to Cardiff and get our arses smacked in the first game of the season and then we’ll be looking at the season ahead and be going: ‘F**k, where are we?’ But it’s not where we start, it’s where we finish, so we have to take a measured view. If we go to Cardiff and win, its not all fixed; and if we go to Leinster and turn them over, that’s great but it doesn’t mean we have cracked it.”
“I want us to be a positive team, even when we kick the ball. I want people to roll their sleeves up, grit their teeth and get into the middle of it so the people who come to watch can see that Darcy Graham cares, Blair Kinghorn cares and Ben Toolis is in the middle of the sh*t-fight and Ross Ford is leading the charge.
“Because, actually, that is what we identify with. That’s what we cheer about. People keep telling me the Edinburgh crowd is really quiet, well, I’m not f**king surprised, we’ve given them f**k all to cheer about!”
He has a tough season ahead, not least because of the extra travel with the twin South African franchises. Edinburgh play the Cheetahs on 25 November, the same day that Scotland are facing the Wallabies at Murrayfield, and the Southern Kings one week later. Cockerill will be without his best players but he appears unfazed.
“I think its a great concept,” says the Englishman. “ If it works I think the English and French will go, ‘f**k, we missed a trick on that’ because we are taking the risk, aren’t we?
“It adds a little bit of variety. Clearly the away game will be a little bit too far for supporters to go and watch. Clearly it will be us going there in their summer and them coming here in our winter… that will be an interesting one.
“I think it’s good variety, I think the top three is sensible around play-offs and the top two are semi-finalists and you play-off, I think that’s a good thing. They’ve kept the derby games which are important to everyone for all sorts of reasons. I think its a good concept but we’ll see what it is in reality. I think we have to approach it as the glass half full and see where it ends up. Let’s attack it with a bit of optimism and let’s attack it with a bit of gusto and let’s make it work because that’s the way the game is going to go isn’t it?”
You have to hope that Cockerill is the game-changer that Edinburgh needs because Scottish rugby cannot afford to have 50 per cent of their pro-teams on permanent life support. He may have matured and even mellowed a tad since his playing days, but at his core Cockerill remains the little big man, taking on the world and throwing himself into every challenge to the extent of uprooting his family and moving them lock, stock and barrel to Edinburgh.
“That’s important to me and the family because I’m going to ask a lot of the players so I’m doing exactly the same. The kids have moved school, the wife has left her job, which she liked, so I better make it work!”