Richard Cockerill: Respect the haka but stand up to the challenge

Richard Cockerill was accused of disrespecting the haka when, as an England hooker, he went face to face with All Blacks opposite number Norm Hewitt before a 1997 Test.

Ireland players face the New Zealand haka led by TJ Perenara before the World Cup quarter-final. Picture: Stu Forster/Getty

But, as he looked forward to Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final between the two countries, the Edinburgh coach insisted that although he believes the New Zealanders’ traditional pre-match ritual should be celebrated, that does not mean that opponents need to stand idly by in the distance while it is being performed.

“The haka is a special thing for New Zealand, but it’s also a special thing within the sport and the game overall,” 
Cockerill said. “As a player, I always looked forward to facing it. My first time, I was probably a bit closer to it than I should have been.

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“But it’s something that should be celebrated. I believe there’s as much psychological edge to be gained from facing it as there is doing it. It clearly means a lot to New Zealand, which is fine.

“Is it an advantage for them? I don’t know. The All Blacks used to get so psyched up doing it that they’d start games very poorly. They’ve had to 
do things around that to 
manage it.

“For me, I think it should be respected. But I also don’t think that you should have to stand 20 metres back away from it and just watch them. There obviously doesn’t need to be physical contact. But it is a war dance ultimately and it is a challenge that they’re laying down to you. They’re 
calling on their mana and their 
forefathers to come and help them and take the strength from the earth. I reckon you should be able to stand a metre away from them if you want to. You shouldn’t just have to stand 20 metres away. It’s a challenge to go into battle.”

After last week’s Pro14 break, Cockerill’s squad are back in action on Saturday evening when they welcome Scarlets to Murrayfield.

Most of the players who saw action for Scotland in the World Cup are likely to have another week or two off, but back-row forward Magnus Bradbury, full-back Blair Kinghorn and scrum-half Henry Pyrgos are set to return – with Cockerill joking that the No 9, who was a late call-up by 
Scotland as a replacement for the injured Ali Price, had never really been away. “There will be a couple of guys hopefully involved this weekend that didn’t play a huge amount,” he said. “Some guys are having a bit more time because they feel they need it.

“Pyrgos is already in [the squad]. I forgot about him – I didn’t really count him, to be fair, he just went for a week’s break, I think. No, we’re hoping to have Kinghorn and Bradbury come back into the squad. We’ll see.”

Before the match against the Welsh side, the coach will find time to watch that 
game between his old team and New Zealand – a clash which he believes pits the two best sides in the tournament against one another.

“Do I fancy England’s 
chances? Yeah, 100 per cent,” Cockerill said.

“They’re a very good side and, purely from a rugby point of view, I’ve got to be honest and say England v New Zealand would be better as the final.

“They are the two best teams at the moment. But England are more than good enough to beat New Zealand. They’ve got an all-round power game to do it. But, then again, if 
New Zealand get it right, then they’ll be more than good enough to beat England. So it’ll be a great game.”