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Peter Jackson: Cockerill’s Edinburgh won’t take a backward step

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

22 Feb 2017

You can’t sum up what Richard Cockerill will bring to Edinburgh Rugby by purely looking at this CV, but the coach’s relentless character will ensure he puts the Scots on the front foot in the Guinness PRO12.

To measure Cockerill’s career at Leicester Tigers strictly in terms of winning multiple English Premiership titles also misses the bigger picture.

Every international front row forward worth his salt leaves a mark of sorts on the game but only one can claim to have done so on a truly universal scale.  Cockerill’s personal mark may not be strikingly obvious but it will last for as long as the All Blacks do The Haka.

In arguably the most agitated pre-match performance ever given by a Kiwi opponent, he got so far up New Zealand noses during their war dance at Old Trafford in the late autumn of 1997 that it almost caused an international incident.

When the 20th anniversary comes around this November, it is safe to say there will be no re-enactment. For a start, Cockerill in the leading role will be otherwise engaged, immersed in the challenging task of galvanising Edinburgh into Guinness PRO12 title contenders as their head coach with effect from this summer.

Scotland’s capital team will be in the hands of a self-made man who has come a long way since making the sparks fly at Old Trafford, where the crowd had witnessed all manner of theatrics but never a sight quite like this – one bald-headed hooker in all black leading The Haka, his ferocity matched by another bald-headed hooker in all white.

In redefining the whole concept of in-your-face combat, Cockerill had moved to within nose-rubbing touch of Norm Hewitt to let his New Zealand opposite number know he accepted the challenge and would not be taking a backward step.

As the arrowhead of the England team, he went so close to Hewitt that Martin Johnson, standing alongside, feared he had overstepped the mark. “Cockers,’’ the captain told him out of the side of his mouth. “You’ve done it now, mate.”

While Hewitt had to restrain himself, in the cold light of day he respected Cockerill’s stand. “I just wanted to slug him,’’ he recalled in a book. “But I knew I couldn’t, not in front of all those people. The Poms had exactly the right answer.  You accept the challenge and you throw it back. I was one motivated Maori boy that afternoon and I made sure Cockerill knew it, too.’’

©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

A similar confrontation had taken place at Lansdowne Road eight years earlier before an Ireland-New Zealand match, spearheaded by the rival captains Willie Anderson and Wayne Shelford. Having let that one pass, the global governing body, then the IRB, now World Rugby, decided to act on Cockerill’s stand at Old Trafford. As a result, nobody can get up that close and that personal over The Haka any more. The All Blacks and those accepting the challenge are kept a healthy distance apart by a no man’s land.

To his credit, Cockerill has never subscribed to the theory, expounded by some of his more illustrious team-mates, that the ancient Maori ritual gives the Kiwis a psychological edge. The old hooker is a fan.

“I’d pay just to see The Haka,’’ he told me long years after the dust-up at Old Trafford. “It’s great for the game, a wonderful spectacle. My kids are mesmerized by it.’’

The All Blacks duly won but they had grudging respect for the English stand-up-and-fight attitude personified by their bulldog of a hooker. Having left school without an O-level to his name, Cockerill had the good fortune to find a game that suited him down to a tee.

“Rugby just seemed to fit my personality,’’ he said. “If there was a fight at school or on the village green, I was always in the middle of it. So rugby appealed to me straightaway, this sort of controlled violence.’’

His Test career may not have survived the 1999 World Cup from which England departed in Paris with five Jannie de Beer drop goals raining down on them.  But, throughout his 28 Tests, nobody ever doubted Cockerill’s will to win.

He proved it time after time over the course of 262 matches at Leicester, a period spanning ten years when the Tigers won five English League titles and two European Cups.

Within three years of leaving, Cockerill was back on his old stamping ground, ready to reinvent himself as a coach. It is to his credit that he made the quantum leap from chief rabble rouser on the chorus line to conductor of the orchestra in a relatively short time.

Whenever the Tigers made him acting head coach which they did twice, first when Marcelo Loffreda was otherwise engaged with Argentina at the 2007 World Cup, then a year later after Heyneke Meyer’s resignation, Cockerill delivered winning results.

He had everyone playing in tune, so much so that by April 2009 the Tigers were top of the domestic tree and into the last four of the European Cup. Even by the demanding standards of the Leicester board, that was enough to persuade them to drop the ‘acting’ part of their head coach’s title.

Cockerill rewarded them by taking the club to five Premiership Grand Finals, winning three and the Anglo-Welsh Cup. At Leicester, as many an England player will testify, they tended to sort out differences behind closed doors in the old-fashioned way.

Old school and proud of it, Cockerill surpassed himself as a spokesman for the club. Other coaches would duck the after-match press conference if the game had gone badly wrong but Cockerill always fronted up and always told it as it was.

One example of his honesty springs to mind. Leicester lost a European Cup tie to Ospreys in Swansea and towards the end the Welsh region briefly had 16 players on the field due to confusion over their Wales full-back, Lee Byrne, returning from a blood injury.

Two of the Tigers’ hierarchy raised the possibility of a protest on the grounds that Ospreys had broken the rules. To his credit, Cockerill was having none of it.

“If they had a 16th man on the field it was only for a very short time,’’ he said. “It made no difference. Ospreys won the match deservedly so. End of story.’’

The end for Cockerill at Welford Road came on the first working day of the New Year. The cumulative effect of some damaging results in Europe proved too much for the board. Ironically, the most damaging results had been wrought by teams from the Guinness PRO12 – the Glasgow Warriors walloping the Tigers 42-13 at Scotstoun in mid-October and Munster mauling them 38-0 at Thomond Park before Christmas. Typically, Cockerill fronted up.

‘’We were beaten in every department,’’ he said that day in Limerick. “The teams we’ve been playing in the Premiership were not of the same quality as Munster.  We have to lick our wounds and get a lot better.’’

By the time the Warriors rocked up in the East Midlands to emphasise Cockerill’s point about Guinness PRO12 quality by winning 43-0, the man himself had gone, adamant, of course, that he was still the one for the job.

Leicester’s loss will soon be Edinburgh’s gain. Their new head coach will relish the prospect of working in ‘a real rugby city’. They, in return, will have a real Rugby man, and not just because he comes from the eponymous Midlands market town where William Webb Ellis picked up the football and ran.

Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €30 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie. Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final