Richard Cockerill has insisted that Gregor Townsend has been completely correct in his handling of the Finn Russell situation, citing an example from his own playing career of the need for a coach to have total authority over his squad.
Townsend, the Scotland coach, reiterated his position regarding Russell on Monday, insisting that the stand-off would have to agree to abide by team values and protocols before returning to the squad. Russell left the Scotland camp a few days before the Ireland game, his relationship with Townsend having apparently broken down.
“For me, Gregor has no choice but to do what he’s done,” Edinburgh coach Cockerill said. “Players can’t run the team: coaches run the team. It’s as simple as that.
“From my own experience and my own opinion, Gregor has done exactly what he should have done. Sometimes you have to flex your muscle and put a stake down: ‘This is what we do, this is how we operate. Sorry, whoever doesn’t want to operate within that, then hard lines’.
“And if you want to come back into the environment, as Gregor said, and you want to be part of it, great. But until that happens, then step away.”
Cockerill the coach is to an extent the same as Cockerill the player: a man with strong opinions who is willing to express himself forcefully. But a change of role has altered his perspective, and he now believes he was wrong as a player to engage in public criticism of the then England coach, Clive Woodward.
“In ’99 I wrote a book where I criticised Clive Woodward. He dropped me and never picked me again. If I had my time again I’d do something very different. As a coach, now I sit in his shoes, what he did was exactly right. I never played for England ever again, he won the World Cup and I watched it on telly. That’s a choice I made. He wanted me to apologise, I refused, and we went on our different ways.
“What I should have done was have those conversations in private. That’s where it should probably stay.
“That was slightly different to Finn, but similar consequences. Act in haste and repent at leisure.”
A Scotland team without Russell may be significantly weaker, but Cockerill believes it is always worth running the risk of having a weakened side for the sake of longer-term cohesion. “In the very, very short term, it may be slightly detrimental to the team performance. Long-term, culturally, it will be of huge benefit to Scottish rugby. And Finn’s a good man, he’s a very good player, but so are the other 35 lads in camp. I don’t know the details, I don’t want to pick sides, because that’s not my job, but I know as a coach sometimes you have to stand your ground. Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions.
“Gregor wouldn’t want him not to play. Gregor would love him to play, I’m sure. I haven’t had the conversation, but I want to watch him play, the public want to watch him play. But the culture and the team dynamic comes first. We’re all part of that.
“Everybody is a different personality, but there are certain guidelines. For me, timekeeping, dress code, work ethic are non-negotiables, you all have to have that. If there are boundaries around certain things because you’ve all agreed it, you have to go with it.
“I get it that there’ll be criticism for Gregor because people want to see their favourite player but he has no choice, he’s done exactly the right thing, it’s exactly what I would do and I support what he’s done 100 per cent.
“If someone doesn’t want to be there, that’s their choice. They don’t have to play for Scotland, they don’t have to play for England. You go there because you choose to go there so I think what Finn did was his own choice.
“I wouldn’t have dealt with it any differently, Gregor had no choice. I’d love Finn to come back and play but Finn, do you want to tell me how we operate as a squad? You can ask my players, they don’t decide how we operate. There are parts where players have input, but the rules and who enforces them, it’s the coach.”
Edinburgh return to Pro14 action on Saturday with a visit to Scarlets, and have several players from the wider Scotland squad available to them, including No 8 Nick Haining, who made his Test debut against Ireland.
WP Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Matt Scott and Henry Pyrgos are the others who will come into contention for the trip to Wales, but the other forwards plus Blair Kinghorn have been retained by Townsend, while Darcy Graham will also do some training with the national squad as he continues his return from the injury which ruled him out of the first two rounds of the Six Nations.