the English terrier putting the dog back in Scottish rugby

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It says here that the Vostok Research Station in Antarctica is one of the coldest spots in the world, followed by Eismitte in Greenland, Mount McKinley in Alaska and a place in Russia that begins with V and ends with “ansk”, a name so bewildering that you’d have a greater chance of surviving it, at -47 degrees, than pronouncing it.

Myreside, until recently the home of Edinburgh Rugby, doesn’t appear on a list of the planet’s chilliest corners, but it’s an oversight. All those who braved the icy blasts of a miserable Friday night at Myreside had two things in common: a scant regard for their own comfort and a deep understanding of polar exploration.

This is where Richard Cockerill – apprentice cabinet maker, antique restorer, international rugby player and champion coach – fetched up in the summer of 2017. Cockerill likes to say that upon leaving school with an undistinguished record he progressed to the University of Belligerence at Welford Road, where excellence beckoned with the Leicester Tigers.

His rugby education was hard-earned and is now proving invaluable in his job at Edinburgh. The Englishman may not be in Gregor Townsend’s Scotland coaching team and he won’t even be at Murrayfield – he’ll be watching from home – but his impact on some of the men in blue has been seismic.

Scotland’s Stuart McInally in action during their win over Italy last weekend in the Six Nations. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Scotland’s Stuart McInally in action during their win over Italy last weekend in the Six Nations. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

You’d hesitate to call him Scotland’s Andy Farrell – it’s a bit of a trippy concept – but comparisons can be made. Both men were spat out of English rugby, Farrell by the national team, Cockerill by Leicester, who sacked him in 2017 after more than 20 years as a player and coach.

Rebuilt careers

Both men rebuilt their careers in different countries. Both men have been eulogised in their adopted lands. Farrell will, of course, take over the Ireland reins when Joe Schmidt moves on after the World Cup. Right now, Cockerill would be a short-priced favourite to take over from Townsend whenever he leaves his job, which, to be fair, won’t be any time soon.

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Cockerill is the man – some would say the revolutionary – who is transforming Edinburgh from a laughing stock in their own country to a coming threat on the European stage. Munster will get a close look at the scale of that threat come Champions Cup quarter-final time at Murrayfield at the end of March, but today there’ll be a wee preview.

Where once Edinburgh forwards were slammed for being weak and unreliable, shooting themselves in the foot and repeatedly losing games they should have won, they have now metamorphosed under Cockerill’s guidance. They may not be world class – although some undoubtedly are – but they have an edge to them that’s new.

Ireland (and Munster after them) will be favourites at Murrayfield, but there’s danger ahead. Scotland have yet to crack the mystery of performing away from home in the Six Nations, but in their own place they’re formidable albeit they won’t have their arch pilferers, totemic leaders and royal pains in the backside, Hamish Watson or John Barclay, in their backrow.

Can Scotland win a game of this magnitude without them? It’s a tough call, but the fact that it’s at home gives them strength. Since the last World Cup they’ve played 16 games at Murrayfield and have won 12. They’ve put away Ireland, England, Wales, France, Australia and Argentina in that run. The four they’ve lost have come against New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and England and the deficit at the end was no greater than six points in any of them.

Cockerill has had his part to play in this, delivering more players of greater mental toughness to the national cause. When asked what has changed from the soft touches of before to what we have seen from his team at times this season, particularly in Europe, Cockerill uses the word “resilience”.

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It’s his favourite word for a reason. To Cockerill, it’s actually more than a word, it’s a code. He, himself, was never the most talented hooker, but he made the most of what he had and enjoyed a fine playing career because he was resilient. He tells a story about his first time playing for Leicester against a storied Bath team in the early 1990s and it cuts to the heart of what he is.

Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill speaks to his players ahead of their Pro14 clash with Scarlets at Murrayfield last year. Photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho
Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill speaks to his players ahead of their Pro14 clash with Scarlets at Murrayfield last year. Photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho

He was young, keen and in a hurry. Up against him, the veteran hard man Graham Dawe, a West Country farmer of repute. In the first scrum, a Bath put-in, Cockerill tried to hook Dawe’s ball, an act of insubordination that drew the evil eye from his ferocious counterpart.

“What are you doing?” Dawe enquired, menacingly.

“I’m competing for the ball,” Cockerill replied.

“Not f****** today you’re not,” Dawe ordered.

Kind advice

Cockerill thanked his rival for his kind advice and carried on competing. “He twatted me, I twatted him and that was that,” he said. “The game has changed massively and you wouldn’t get away with things now that we got away with then, but some things will never change and the importance of aggression and hostility in a pack of forwards is one of them.”

Cockerill gave up a job coaching Toulon to come to Edinburgh. He swapped a team that he’d brought to a Top 14 final in front of 80,000 at the Stade de France for a side that had finished ninth, ninth, eighth, eighth, 10th and 11th in the Pro12 in the six seasons before his arrival, a dismal lot who had not qualified to play in the top tier of European competition in four years.

Up until recently the Scotland national team was almost the exclusive preserve of the Glasgow Warriors. Sure, there were a few Edinburgh players and a couple of exiles in the mix, but mostly the team that played for Scotland was the team that Townsend created at Glasgow. And how they basked in it.

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Remember the days when Munster took such delight in mocking Leinster? This was a mini version of it. Since Cockerill appeared, Glasgow’s domestic dominance has evaporated. The sides have met five times and Edinburgh have won four of them.

Under his watch, Stuart McInally has gone from third-choice hooker for his country to one of the most highly rated hookers in the world. Cockerill has nurtured last weekend’s hat-trick man, Blair Kinghorn, puncturing the hype around him when he felt it was damaging and talking him up when he felt he was ready.

He’s turned Jamie Ritchie into an international flanker, has improved Ben Toolis and Simon Berghan and has beaten some maturity into the ill-disciplined Magnus Bradbury, now a backrow of substance albeit one who is currently injured.

Grant Gilchrist, the talented but water-treading lock in the BC (Before Cockerill) years, was picked up (or dragged up) and deposited back into the international fold as the kind of player everybody thought he could become. Cockerill’s view was that Gilchrist wasn’t working hard enough, wasn’t showing the necessary hunger – and he told him so. Gilchrist has mentioned this in interviews. “The first thing he said to me was that he’d heard a lot of good things about me as a player, but that he’d seen all my videos and he didn’t understand what the fuss was about.”

In full cry, there’s a Jim Telfer-esque quality to Cockerill, a toughness, a mischief, an obsession with winning. It’s early days in his project of tearing down the Edinburgh walls and building them back up again, but his impact is clear. If it’s clearer still today then Ireland might be in serious trouble.

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