IT TAKES only ten minutes to drive from the playing fields of Boroughmuir High School to BT Murrayfield, but Neil Cochrane has taken a more circuitous route from the start of his career as a tearaway back-row forward playing on the back pitches at Meggetland, to one of six players vying for the right to run out at the national stadium every second week as Edinburgh’s first-choice hooker.
Cochrane went on to represent Scotland at under-18 and under-19 level, before captaining the national under-21 side during the 2005 Six Nations and at the Junior World Cup in Argentina that year. He was also a member of the fledgling Edinburgh Rugby academy during this period, alongside the likes of Ross Ford, Nick De Luca and Ben Cairns.
However, when the time came for him to take the next step in his career he found that neither of Scotland’s two professional sides were interested in offering him a contract. “There just wasn’t a deal on the table but I had an agent who got a couple of phone calls from down south, and I ended up going to the Championship and spent three years with Rotherham and three further seasons with Doncaster,” Cochrane said.
“I then I decided to change position to hooker and I was very fortunate that Bedford said to me that they would stick by me no matter what, and I think in my first season there I started 90 per cent of the games at hooker. That gave me the confidence to kick on, and use it as a springboard into the Premiership when I signed for Wasps at the start of last season.
“The first six months was tough. Throwing is a dark art. It is repetition, repetition, repetition and scrummaging takes so much out of your legs it was hard to get about the park to begin with. But you soon get used to it. It is like being a fourth back-rower really.”
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Cochrane played nine games for Wasps during the first half of the 2013-14 campaign before injuring his knee at the start of November. That ruled him out for the remainder of the season, but Edinburgh had been watching and they offered him a two-year deal running from the start of the current season.
“It was too good an opportunity for me to turn down,” said the 30-year-old. At last Cochrane was back where he feels he belongs, but the roller-coaster ride was not over yet. He missed the start of the season with that knee injury and when he was ready to take his Edinburgh bow against the Ospreys in mid September it proved not to be a triumphant arrival that he had waited so long for. “I played nine minutes then tore my hamstring,” he said.
That sidelined him for another ten weeks, but he was able to make his comeback a week past Sunday as a substitute during Edinburgh’s victory over Cardiff Blues – and this time he emerged from the battle unscathed.
Cochrane missed last weekend’s debacle in Italy, but that will have hardly damaged his chances of making a first start for the club this Sunday, when first-choice hooker Ross Ford is expected to be rested for the visit of London Welsh in the European Challenge Cup.
“The initial target for me is getting some good game time for Edinburgh and forcing my way into the team. Cardiff was the first real game time I’ve had in those 12 months, so I did feel rusty but it was good to get back out there, and hopefully I can keep progressing in the coming weeks,” he said.
Cochrane is not the type of character to dwell on what might have been. He simply states that the injury-ravaged 12 months he has endured has been “tedious”. However, he is more effusive when acknowledging that he probably should have made the move from the back-row to the front-row earlier in his career.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but looking back I did have an opportunity in my first season at Rotherham to go to hooker, and I didn’t do it because I was quite stubborn and thought I could go on to bigger and better things as a flanker,” he said. “But the reality is that I am a bit vertically challenged and the way they are going nowadays is that back-rowers are seen as a line-out option.
“I think the success I’ve had in such a small period of time as a hooker, playing Championship rugby, then stepping up to the Premiership, then going on to Edinburgh, shows I should have made the move when I was 21.”
But Cochrane has not left it too late for a rewarding Indian summer. There are a lot of players ahead of him in the international pecking order – such as Ford, Scott Lawson, Fraser Brown, Pat MacArthur and Hamish Bryce – but if he can stay away from injuries, Cochrane knows that by returning to Edinburgh he has put himself in the shop window if Vern Cotter discovers that his options in this crucial position are suddenly more limited than they appear to be at the moment.
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