Richard Cockerill strikes you as a man who would approve of the Robert Louis Stevenson line about it being better to travel hopefully than arrive.
A moment when he puts his feet up and thinks “job done” is difficult to picture from someone forever striving for improvement and he is adamant that the Edinburgh side he has shaken from its slumber and begun to forge in his own spiky image is a long way from arriving anywhere.
After leading Edinburgh to a record 15 wins in the Guinness Pro14 (matched only by Glasgow in the regular season), an 1872 Cup triumph and a return to the Heineken Champions Cup, the plaudits have rained down on Cockerill after the failures of a string of coaches to rouse the capital pro team from what seemed to be an incurable malaise.
“It’s been an interesting one for me,” said Cockerill. “Over the summer everybody keeps congratulating me, but we were [joint] fifth and we lost in the quarter-finals, that would have got me the sack at Leicester, in fact I got sacked for less at Leicester!”
The former England hooker was given the boot in January 2017 by the club with which he distinguished himself as a player, before rising through the coaching ranks to bring three Premiership titles to Welford Road and a Heineken Cup final appearance.
The Tigers lay fifth then with half a season to go but had been bundled out of Europe, partly due to a heavy loss to Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow at Scotstoun.
After a stint at Toulon, who he will face in Europe this season, Cockerill took on the seemingly poisoned chalice of Edinburgh and turned it into something drinkable. Refining it into a superior vintage is now the next challenge.
“Last season was a big improvement for us,” he said. “We’re a lot better side than we have been, but we want to keep building on that. We’ve had a lot of change on the playing front, so we need time to settle with that and we shouldn’t underestimate that that’ll take a little bit of time. And if you remember back to this time of year, to the start of the season we were average at times, so we just need to keep building again. For us to be in the play-offs again we’ve got to be better than [Conference B rivals] Ulster, Scarlets and Leinster which is a big ask again.
“So we’ve got to work hard with what we think is a slightly better squad and we’ve got to go into every game and try to win.”
Cockerill has added to his squad, notably gaining the experienced Scotland international trio of Matt Scott, Henry Pyrgos and the currently injured John Barclay. Compared to this time last year Edinburgh are an almost unrecognisable animal but the old pop music adage about the “difficult second album” is an obvious concern. There is no doubt Edinburgh caught out many teams expecting the same old easybeats, particularly early in the season, and also benefited from refresherbreaks in a pretty easy European Challenge Cup group.
“I just keep it realistic,” said Cockerill. “I’ve been asked already about whether the minimum is play-offs? Well, I know for sure that Leinster, Ulster and Scarlets will spend a lot more than we do. Historically, they’ve got stronger foundations, so we’ve got to keep working at that.
“I want to be in the play-offs because I want us to have a crack at it. We’re in a European competition, which is a different dynamic against three very good teams, so the attrition in our squad is going to be harder isn’t it, for obvious reasons, because we’re going to have to back up league games with European games.
“A lot of those European ties are off the back of autumn or Six Nations as well, so guys will come off of that and have a week off then straight into Europe, so there’s different challenges. Mentally and physically it’s going to be tougher for us. So, it’ll be interesting to see how we develop to that point.
“We’ve just got to keep working and improving, it’s as simple as that. We’re a year into trying to re-invent Edinburgh and what we’re about. We’ve had one half decent season in eight seasons, so we think we’ve got a better balance to our squad but now we’ve just got to work harder and it’s going to be more difficult because sides won’t take us for granted and there’s a little bit of expectation about what we can deliver, so we need to make sure we’re better again.”
The Heineken Champions Cup is a tournament almost immune to the old “group of death” cliche as all the pools tend to come with a distinctly ominous pallor. As well as the big-spending French pair of former Scotland coach Vern Cotter’s Montpellier and Cockerill’s old employers Toulon, there will be fascinating “almost derbies” with Newcastle Falcons, who also serve as final warm-up opposition at Kingston Park on Friday, before the Pro14 campaign opens away to Ospreys a week later. “Our games are going to get harder in Europe rather than easier like it was last year, so we start with Montpellier away and Toulon at home, two of the best club teams in world rugby,” said Cockerill.
“It’s a great test for us, we’ve got to look forward to that, but our bread and butter is going to be the league and we’ve got to be consistent and we’re going to go into every European game seeing where we’re at. But what a great opportunity for us to go and test ourselves against the very best.
“Our players are going to have to learn that they’re going to have to play a big league game and then they’re going to have to go to Montpellier and play a massive game and then they’re going to have to play Toulon at home and back it up.
“But actually that’s good for them because that’s what real rugby teams do that are successful. If you’re in a World Cup you’ve got to back big game up with big game, then another, and probably historically from Edinburgh’s point of view we’ve not been overly good at that. So it’s going to be a good learning curve.”