When I call Richard Cockerill in the south of France he picks up promptly. I complain, a little peevishly, that he had not responded to an earlier text.
“It’s been a little bit busy,” he replies with a light dusting of sarcasm. It was the day that Toulon sacked Mike Ford and promoted the former England hooker into the hot seat, if only temporarily. Fabien Galthie takes the reins next season.
Cockerill has forged a career out of confrontation. Most famously with Norm Hewitt whom he stood eyeball to eyeball with when the All Black hooker led the haka in 1997 at Old Trafford. Brave or foolhardy, take your pick, but Cockerill wasn’t for backing down. He famously fell out with Sir Clive Woodward, who ended his England career, referees, players, employees, too many to mention.
He was a small but central figure in the all-conquering Leicester pack of the late 1990s: Dean Richards, John Wells, Neil Back, a young Martin Johnson breaking through and, of course, the old ABC club –Leicester wore letters on their backs back then – up front with Cockerill in the thick of it. A thing of wonder in its pomp, the closest thing in nature to an unstoppable force, the training days were reckoned to be tougher than most matches.
As his mucker Graham Rowntree observed years later, “we were mad for a ruckus” and now Cockerill finds himself head coach of Edinburgh Rugby, most of whose employees probably think that ‘ruckus’ is Latin for the breakdown. How the hell did this happen?
“I had a good meeting with Scott Johnson and Mark Dodson, they laid out their vision for Edinburgh Rugby,” replies the little hooker in that familiar Midlands accent. “Glasgow have done exceptionally well and Scottish rugby has done well on the back of that. The next club to sort out is Edinburgh.
“I have obviously been at Leicester, which is a very well resourced team and at Edinburgh the budget isn’t anywhere near as big and the players aren’t as good, the expectation is less but there are some really good young players there who will benefit from my experience. I am going to help them become better players and if I can do that and get this team better and be competitive and keep pushing up the table, so teams actually respect us, that is going to be a real challenge.
“It’s just a different challenge. It’s easier to coach better players but they are harder to manage so it will be hard to coach them [Edinburgh] but they will be easier to manage. There is a lot of upside to Edinburgh and I think it can be a really good place. I know it’s a beautiful city but they have just lost their way for whatever reason.
“I may not be up to the challenge but we will see in three years’ time. I hope I am good enough to make this team good but we will see.”
The news of his appointment was met by overwhelming approval from the media and the fans if only because pretty much everyone and their auntie has been driven to distraction by Edinburgh’s gritty determination to perform within themselves. This is a mid-table squad that is averaging a ninth place finish in the Pro12.
The coach was sacked by Leicester in January of this year, ending an association with the club that stretches back to 1992. The issue was one of style, with Cockerill wanting the Tigers to focus on the forward domination that worked for them historically, while his assistant Aaron Mauger was thought to prefer a more open brand of running rugby.
Cockerill appears open minded on the matter. He talks about ensuring Edinburgh have a big, physical forward pack, a basic requirement of professional rugby, and highlights the miserable Scottish weather while insisting that he wants a team that can play with the ball in hand and pointing to the strides that Edinburgh have made under Duncan Hodge.
Admittedly his Toulon team aren’t exactly ripping up trees on his watch, out of Europe and a precarious fourth in the Top 14. Incidentally the French final is on 4 June, which would mean Cockerill missing the first day or so of Edinburgh’s pre-season in the unlikely event that Toulon qualify. Still, Cockerill is an eloquent lobbyist in his own cause and speaks passionately on the unique challenges awaiting him in the capital.
“Look, it’s a good squad and it’s a rugby city and I have been working behind the scenes doing my due diligence around what is good and what is bad.
“When I arrive in June I will start to pick that apart and try to cultivate an environment that will, one, have an identity. It’s Edinburgh first and Scotland second, and I want players that want to be part of Edinburgh Rugby. The guys will either buy into and be part of it or they won’t buy into and won’t be part of it…that will be their decision.
“I think it’s got a lot of very good young Scottish players. I think the forward pack has a lot of potential. For whatever reason everyone tells me that it has not reached its potential but there are a lot of very good young players in there; [Magnus] Bradbury, [Jamie] Ritchie and Hamish Watson and there are some very good young second rows that are coming through, [Lewis] Carmichael in particular. There are some good young front rowers as well so I think there is a lot of potential there.
“But I think that the back line has been a bit under-resourced and obviously Mark Bennett is coming into that (when fit), I think [Blair] Kinghorn is a very good player. But there needs to be a little more invested in the back line and that is what we are looking to do. But it’s not going to be a quick fix overnight.
“The reality is, that since the start of the Pro12 Edinburgh have never finished above eighth. So when Robbo [Andy Robinson] was there, there was a bit of success but the reality is that in the Pro12 eighth is their best finish… The reality is we are a little bit better than the Italians and Newport Gwent. That is the reality.”
Cockerill may have his hands full in France but he was at Myreside when Edinburgh contrived to squander an 11-point lead against the Cardiff Blues which suggests a lack of leadership within the squad. The Englishman promises to hand that mantle to the younger generation because “the senior players haven’t done the job”. Moreover he is fully aware of the financial restrictions on Edinburgh but he hopes that if the club can prove themselves worthy of further finance the SRU will find the wherewithal.
At one point Cockerill argues, “there is an arrogance around Edinburgh Rugby that is unfounded because they have never won anything have they?” But on this specific he may be mistaken. Edinburgh look the opposite of arrogant to me, desperately short on confidence and self belief, almost trying too hard which is when the individual errors creep in.
Whatever the truth on that score, there is one theme that keeps cropping up in conversation and it is perhaps the only thing that connects every successful team in the entire history of the game: hard work.
“We are going to be fitter, we are going to be better prepared and we are going to have a work ethic and a culture that a professional rugby club needs,” Cockerill’s statement is almost a threat.
“We are going to work very hard because my work ethic is good and I am expecting the players and the staff to have a first class work rate and if they don’t want to buy into that that’s great, I have no issues with that, just don’t play for Edinburgh.
“I’ll say this to the players and the coaches, we have to work really hard because without hard work we are nothing. If you are a really good player or a journeyman, if you don’t work hard you get nothing. That is the first point of call for me.”
Edinburgh’s new coach can be accused of several things but not a lack of commitment. He is moving the family – wife Sarah and three kids, Stanley, Annie and Olivia – to the capital where he can’t wait to get started.
“If I commit, I commit and that is what I expect from all the staff and all the players. And if they are not in they will get out, there is no stress, that is the choice that people make.”
“I don’t want to portray Edinburgh in a poor light,” Cockerill continues, “because I am the head coach and I am looking forward to it.”
It is almost as if the abrasive little Englishman is mellowing a little; Edinburgh’s long-suffering fans will hope not.