Cockerill’s call I’m not right fit for England
Edinburgh’s Richard Cockerill explains how he has turned the club into a genuine force
Two years ago almost to the day, Richard Cockerill arrived in Toulon, still numb from being sacked by Leicester, wondering how he would “fill the void”, but entirely grateful to Mike Ford for giving him an immediate pick-me-up opportunity as interim forwards coach at the three-time European champions.
Today, Cockerill returns to the Stade Mayol with his Edinburgh team topping Pool 5 in the Champions Cup, primed to qualify for the knockout stages and well placed also in the Pro14. Toulon, meanwhile, are on their uppers. It is some transformation in fortunes, to the point where Cockerill has even been mentioned in Rugby Football Union dispatches as a possible candidate to succeed Eddie Jones.
“The only time the RFU used to mention me was when they were banning me for foul language and haranguing referees,” says Cockerill with a chuckle at his Murrayfield base. “The England job is nowhere near my radar, although I would like to coach at international level one day. What I have come to realise is that a club or an opportunity has to be the right fit for both parties. I’m not sure I’m the right fit for England. My skill-set is not to everyone’s taste.”
It was to the taste of Edinburgh. They had signed up Cockerill within a couple of months of his arrival at Toulon, where he eventually took over from Ford for the last couple of months of that season, winning seven of his eight games in charge, his only defeat coming in the final of the Top 14.
It would be easy to say that what you see with Cockerill is what you get. The shaven-headed, bulging-eyed taskmaster is the obvious trope, the bloke with whom you mess at your peril.
“To be fair, I do play to that image,” says Cockerill, sensing that he is about to be unmasked as something of more substance, which he is.
“People are a bit wary of me and I quite like that. It’s true that some will look at my CV and the way I have been and think I’m not bright enough or sharp or layered enough to coach at Test or the very highest levels. But I make no apologies for the way I am.”
As Edinburgh quickly found out. The team were the runt of the Scottish litter, unloved and unproductive. Glasgow Warriors were the darlings, with more funding and more cachet. Cockerill gathered the squad together at St Andrews University for a pre-season camp when he took over in the summer of 2017.
“I told them they had finished in the bottom four for the last seven years so they hadn’t much of a case when it came to challenging me,” says Cockerill. “In for breakfast at 7.30am every day, no phones, tidy up, on time, right kit, Sunday training – I didn’t want to be in on Sundays either, I told them, but nor did I want to be c--- when we played the following Friday – my basic values and no arguments.
“There were 20 international players, but the team was like a holding pen for the Test team, all circling overhead waiting for the Scotland call-up rather than getting stuck into the day job of making Edinburgh a side with hunger and desire. Yes, there were a few truths laid bare. Like it or lump it. I had no idea how it would work out.”
The shock-and-awe tactics have worked. Edinburgh did the double over Glasgow over Christmas and, indeed, Cockerill has won four of the five encounters with Scotland’s other franchise, who are coached by New Zealander Dave Rennie, a man linked with putative All Black posts.
Cockerill is happy in his own skin and own circumstances. He has extended his contract to 2021 and is about to conclude a house purchase in the city for his wife and three children.
Has he gone over to the other side, an adopted Scot? “No, I’m Leicester through and through, English too and I will never wear a skirt [kilt]. But, yes, part of my brief here is to develop Scottish talent, bring through players such as, say, young Jamie Hodgson, who I picked as an amateur because of injuries we had. In England, I’d have bought in someone on a short-term deal.
“There is no relegation in the Pro14 and so I’ve come to understand there is a bigger picture in terms of nurturing the next generation for Scotland.”
Cockerill’s resources are much less than he had at Leicester, spending 60-70 per cent of the £7 million salary cap that exists in the Premiership. The man who hired him, Mark Dodson, chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, gave him a clear brief.
“Edinburgh were not value for money and Mark wanted me to get more bang for his buck,” says Cockerill. “I came in with a belligerent attitude, to impose discipline, to get them grafting.”
Even now, belts are tight at Edinburgh. For matches in Wales, the team fly to Bristol, get a coach to, say, Llanelli, back on again at 11pm, drive through the night and arrive at Murrayfield at 8am. “It’s
called the mega bus, but there is nothing mega about it,” said Cockerill. “We’ve splashed out on a charter, though, to Toulon. Mind you, we’re staying in the Ibis.”
Edinburgh face an intriguing, perhaps defining eight days. Toulon may be out of the reckoning, but have only ever been beaten twice in Europe at the
‘People are a bit wary of me and I quite like that. I make no apologies for who I am’
Mayol, while former Scotland coach Vern Cotter returns to Murrayfield next week with his Montpellier team.
“We’re going to give it everything,” said Cockerill. “It will be a great test of our mental fortitude. We are far, far from the finished article. We’re gatecrashers in Europe. We were compared to Leicester when we did the Glasgow double, although I’m not sure it was meant as a compliment. The boys have seen where hard work can take them. That’s all it is, that’s all it has ever been. I know what it takes to succeed.”
And all in his own inimitable way.
Transformation: Former Leicester coach Richard Cockerill has worked wonders during Murrayfield reign