Please tell me this has happened to you. There’s something big coming up, a speech or maybe an interview, only as you rehearse what you’re going to say you end up mangling the words. I’m meeting Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh’s rugby coach, and want to ask him about the haiku… I mean haka.
There I go again. This caused great hilarity when I did it in the office. Colleagues were imagining what would be the reaction of this formidable if not ferocious man – “I’m not a fluffy-type person,” he once growled – when he’s reminded that one of his claims to fame was standing his ground in outright defiance of the three-line Japanese poem. Me, I would be the one having to deal with that reaction, and as I walk to my late-afternoon rendezvous muttering “Haka, haka” over and over to myself because Cockerill did indeed challenge the All Blacks’ war cry, I’m thinking that I’ll be getting off lightly if the fallout consists merely of a dead-eyed stare and a door-slam, with the primordial roar echoing down the corridor for many seconds afterwards.
But Cockerill doesn’t blow up today like he did in print, when his memoirs killed his England career, or like the many times on the touchline at Leicester Tigers, ranting and raving at officialdom. I’d almost go as far as to describe him as a pussycat, a fluffy-type pussycat.
He’s grinning and laughing from the start. He’s much more fun than I thought he’d be. Emboldened, I try him with a question I thought was going to be far too frivolous. Did he watch the finale of TV show Doctor Foster the night before? “Yes!” he exclaims. A couple of hours’ rugby homework on the laptop, then he relaxed in the company of TV’s most molten and poisonous ex-married couple. “And I definitely thought she should have just run him over.”
I try another: when was the last time this ex-tough nut of the Red Rose front row cried? “Oh that’s easy,” he says. “It was just the other day when I found out how much it was going to cost to send my three kids to Watson’s!”
George Watson’s College, august fee-paying school in a city that’s full of them. A city that’s full of rugby enthusiasts, too, although if everyone who ever small-talked about rugger at drinks parties in New Town offices or in the members-only lounges of the Edinburgh-London Shuttle actually went along to watch Cockerill’s team, the stands would burst. This is his world now and it’s strange one for him. It’s strange because he’s come from Leicester where the rugby club had an identity and a culture and a few weeks into this job he’s still searching for these things in his new location. “Back in my playing days, when Leicester City [the football team] were at Filbert Street, we were over the road and every Saturday both grounds would be sold out.” But he’s not baffled by the Edinburgh public’s underwhelmed response: such an underperforming club have until now deserved little more. In one of many quips suggesting it will be the most tremendous fun watching Cockerhill at large in Scotland’s capital, he said on arrival that he’d found the castle, all right, and it’s lovely “but there haven’t been any battles there”. Today, proving that the quote was no fluke, he considers Edinburgh, the place, some more: “This is a great city with great schools and a great quality of life… and 74th on the list are Edinburgh, the rugby team. The city is very affluent and I’m not complaining about that. It seems like a very nice, comfortable place.” He pauses for the punchline: “And then people talk about the rugby team and that’s a nice, comfortable place too!”
Cockerill is up for battles, lots of them. As well as battling Edinburghers’ reluctance to come out to watch his XV, he’ll battle Glasgow who, despite the city having a more modest rugby heritage are currently riding higher. He’ll battle the Scotland team or more accurately Edinburgh’s relationship with it, the perception that club is merely where players limber up for country. “I don’t care about Scotland,” he says. “No offence, because I didn’t care about England when I was coaching Leicester. My responsibility is to Edinburgh.” And he’ll battle those Edinburgh players who don’t share his vision for the club and the blood, sweat and tears that will be required to make it happen.
Aged 47, bullet-headed, but with blue eyes which do, on occasion, twinkle, he arrived from Leicester laden with success, trophies and also a sacking to his name. Along the way there was a brief and reinvigorating stop-off in Toulon where he again did well. His story, delving further back into his playing days, is fascinating, as is the way he describes it. Twenty-seven caps sounds like a not-bad career but he insists: “I wasn’t actually that talented. Tenacity was what got me places.”
In a featureless office high in the Murrayfield rafters I tell him my search-engine dug up the best part of 1,500 yarns about him. “Oh shit,” he says. The earliest from 1993 refers to him by the nickname of Smiler but curiously it never re-appears and is replaced by Cockers – has he had cause to smile in Edinburgh yet? “Well, I’ve been getting to grips with how the club is run and how the players function and sometimes I’ve smiled because it’s been the only decent response. Toulon was the same: ‘It’s France, smile, get on with it.” We’re different here, too, I say. “No kidding!”
I’ve heard he doesn’t like journalists. Not quite true: the ones who’re “dead-straight, up-front and report the facts” are all right; it’s the rest he can’t stand. I ask for irksome examples and he mentions an Eddie Butler article, in a Wales-England match programme of all things: “He wrote something along the lines of how, if there was any justice in the world, someone would take Cockers behind the stand and sort him out.” Surely Butler was joking, I say. “I’m not sure. But I noticed that Eddie – one of the softest No 8s of all time, by the way – wasn’t offering to do this himself.”
Still, we seem to be getting along okay. I should stress that in the aforementioned battles he’s not actually seeking direct confrontation. He’ll aim to lead, motivate and inspire, changing attitudes that way. “I’ve mellowed compared with the old days,” he says. Still, I’m thinking as he continues his mission statement for Edinburgh, I wouldn’t like to get on the man’s wrong side.
“There’s a lot of work to be done here but, hopefully, I can use my experience of having worked in good rugby environments to get people on and off the field to understand what a successful team looks like and how hard you have to work to get there. It’s all-encompassing, it’s not nine to five, clocking off and forgetting you play rugby until the next day.”
Each new day at Edinburgh now there’s a breakfast club and Cockerill greeting players with a handshake. Grumbles from the day before, maybe finding out they’ve not made the line-up, should be forgotten about – he insists on this.
“Forty-five boys want to play but only 15 can – that might leave a few wounded egos. It’s a different world now and I have to have some blunt conversations, a bit like a father would with a son. Sometimes I have to say: ‘You look a bit like a pretentious prat – sort yourself out’.
“Beyond rugby, I just don’t think parents are having that conversation with their kids anymore.” So does he have it with his three children? “Bloody right I do! Some things need to be said.”
By moving Stanley, Anna and Olivia and his wife Sarah-Jane to Edinburgh he hopes he’s showing the commitment to the task that others will match. “If they don’t want to do that, no hard feelings. But would they please go and not do that somewhere else?”
Cockers sounds like a super-confident fellow, doesn’t he? Well, there are repeated mentions of his modest skill-set on the park, plus the admission that he left his comprehensive school at 16 with few qualifications. “I wasn’t a big fan of reading and writing and I still say that now.” He’s a do-er, having joined Margaret Thatcher’s Youth Training Scheme – “Young, Thick and Stupid would have been a better name” – to rattle around in an ancient van learning how to restore antiques.
And now he’s a rugby coach? “I’m a carpenter who played hooker,” he says, almost apologetically. Receptions, where he stands up the back sipping orange juice, can be challenging for him. Don’t worry, I say, this is Edinburgh – no corporate flim-flam happens here and he won’t spot a single old school tie. His laugh is a groan. “In the real world which I used to inhabit I brought beaten-up cabinets back to life and there was a value to that. In rugby I sometimes have to sit in meetings which produce absolutely f*** all. I still get paid but I feel such a fraud.”
Cockerill’s tale, growing up in the Midlands village of Leamington Hastings (pop: 450), is the classic one of striving to catch an older brother who seemed to be better at everything and also went to grammar school. The seminal moment came in 1987 when Cockerill sat down to watch Wales v England on TV only for the lineout to detonate after just six minutes. The punch-up was monumental, Phil Davies being downed by a haymaker shattering his jaw in three places.
Four Englishmen – Gareth Chilcott, Graham Dawe, Wade Dooley and Richard Hill – went up before rugby’s beaks but they also went up on Cockerill’s bedroom wall. Here was something at which he could outscore brother John – rugby, not fighting, although he loved the scrapping. “Every minute, I couldn’t ever get enough of it.
“I was drawn to these characters and rugby at that time was the only place in society where everyone entered the arena knowing the rules. It was licenced thuggery but it was also honour among thieves: ‘If you want to punch me then you have to look at me as you’re doing it. You can stand on me anywhere apart from my head.’ You took the pain and you never complained. My junior club were Newbold-on-Avon in a working class area in the middle of a council estate where the unofficial motto was: ‘If they’re bigger than you, hit them harder.’ That was a great grounding for me.” Maybe, I venture, the modern game wouldn’t have been to his liking. “I would’ve hated it.”
French polishing in and around the town of Rugby funded his games of rugby before turning pro and getting the chance to polish France heads in the scrum. First time Cockers played at Murrayfield? A guffaw, then: “That was the Dunblane Memorial International, Barbarians versus a Scottish XV, in which I felt privileged to take part and also very humble when the parents of the children killed spoke to us afterwards. But a funny thing happened on the pitch. The Baa-Baas featured the Leicester front row and a certain Mr Lomu. Jonah did what he did, scored two early tries, and the stadium applauded. Then he made another line-break, palmed off a couple of Scottish guys, passed to me a few yards out and I touched down. The whole placed boo-ed! Walking back I said to [All Black] Craig Dowd: ‘Christ, they all f*****g hate me up here.’ he said: ‘Mate, everyone f*****g hates you everywhere.’”
Undaunted, Cockerill returned to Murrayfield in 1998 for the first of his two Calcutta Cup clashes, winning that one and also at Twickenham the following season. That was the year you ruined our Grand Slam, I say. “Sorry,” he says. The ugly England pack just squatted on the gamboling Scots, squeezing the life out of them. “Agreed.”
It’s time for the potential haiku gaffe and, nice and relaxed now, my question comes out right. This was actually Cockerill’s international debut, 1997 at Twickers: “The team were told beforehand not to be over-respectful of the haka: ‘Find your man, stand nice and strong opposite him.’ As I say, I wasn’t very good but I was tenacious, so I eyeballed Norm Hewitt before taking a flying kick at Josh Kronfeld’s scrum-cap.” This was on the turf at the time, not the New Zealander’s head but, eight months later in Dunedin, Cockers and Hewitt reconvened for a punch-up in a town square. “That was normal rugby behaviour but it wouldn’t happen now – especially not while wearing an England blazer.”
At the 1999 World Cup, Cockerill was dropped by Clive Woodward and deservedly so, he says, but after slamming the coach in his book he never wore the white shirt again.
Cockerill called Woodward “gutless” for announcing his selections by email; Woodward wanted him to apologise but he refused. He says now: “I stand by what I said. Clive never sent emails after that. But I went about it the wrong way. I should have raised it with Clive. I was probably getting too big for my boots and moaning in a book was an error of judgment. Act in haste, repent at leisure: that’s what my wife has always said about me.”
Coaching Leicester, some of his blow-ups with referees came into this category, but not all of them. He stands by the outburst which resulted in a nine-game ban as one of his players had just been left concussed. But he deserved the four-game punishment for calling an official a “f*****g useless c***”. It’s not an excuse, he says, but he was young, raw and desperate to win. “As you get older you become more socially-aware, more tolerant, although there are still occasions when stuff gets flung at walls.” Has he done this in Edinburgh yet? “Em… when I couldn’t get the photocopier to work, the stapler got it.”
He’s still desperate to win, and although there was a measured complaint about an apparent crossing offence in the defeat by Scarlets, he won’t stand for his team being refereed differently, as the side expected to lose – no way.
Before he goes I ask him for a funny story from his days in the antiques game – did he recover valuable heirlooms from the recently-deceased? “You mean the respectable procedure of house clearances. One time, in the home of an old lady who had indeed passed away, I was shifting this commode. I loved picking up heavy items and moving them around – it was extra training for rugby. Anyway, I didn’t realise the commode was full and the contents soaked me.”
Cockers has got to hope grappling with Edinburgh doesn’t end up the same way.