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Richard Cockerill: The Premiership has gone from ‘don’t lose this f------ game’ to lacking niggle

Richard Cockerill - Richard Cockerill: The Premiership has gone from 'don't lose this f------ game' to lacking niggle

It has not been a bad year for the Premiership. An average viewership record in round 13, a record-breaking festive period for attendance, two Champions Cup semi-finalists, and, as far as games won is concerned, only Bristol could feel aggrieved that they have missed out on a top-four spot. And, if tries are what get you out of bed in the morning, then you’ll have spent the season catching many worms.

But if it is niggle and confrontation for which you have a particular penchant, then you might have been left wanting more. Richard Cockerill, as the head coach of Georgia and its Black Lion franchise – and himself a former tenacious hooker – is certainly of that persuasion. Cockerill spent 12 years as forwards coach and then director of rugby of Leicester and has been involved in all but two of the Tigers’ professional era trophies.

Before heading off to Edinburgh, Toulon, Montpellier and England – as an assistant to both Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick – Cockerill became synonymous with Leicester’s abrasive approach. He was there for all the scraps in the East Midlands derby; there for Manu Tuilagi’s punch on Chris Ashton; there for Dylan Hartley’s Twickenham sending-off; and there for Salesi Ma’afu’s haymaker on Tom Youngs. Days like that are lesser-seen now in the era of hyper-professionalism; and they may never return.

Tom Youngs on the receiving end of a Salesi Ma'afu haymaker
Cockerill misses the really combative matches such as when Leicester faced Northampton, one such match saw Tom Youngs on the receiving end of a Salesi Ma'afu haymaker - Action Images/Henry Browne
Chris Ashton feels the full force of a Manu Tuilagi right hook
In another Leicester v Northampton clash Chris Ashton felt the full force of a Manu Tuilagi right hook

“It is a by-product of the modern game,” Cockerill, 53, tells Telegraph Sport. “People move clubs more often. It’s a professional game, a job. I’m a professional coach. It’s my job. When I coached Leicester, as a Leicester man, a great rivalry with Toulon – and then you’re coaching them. And that then became the most important thing. Now, for players, could anyone have imagined Chris Ashton playing for Leicester? Or Mike Brown? I’m from Coventry, but when I first joined Leicester, when we played Northampton, Dean Richards would come in and say: ‘We hate Northampton, so you will hate Northampton.’ ‘Ok.’ You just couldn’t lose to them.

“When I coached Leicester, you just couldn’t… you’d hide at home for a week if you lost to Saints. The semi-final when Manu ‘dealt with’ Ashton – two yellow cards – that intensity where there’s real tension. Who’s going to win? Who’s going to land the first blow? And the number of tries didn’t matter. All the crowd cared about was how committed the team was.

“We talk about pressure these days, about not putting pressure on players to win. And it all being about the ‘process’. I tell you what, when we played Northampton it was f--- all to do with the process. You just had to win. ‘I don’t give a f--- what you do, boys, but you just cannot lose this game. We cannot lose.’ You have to deal with that pressure, because that’s the game. You’re playing at a sold-out Welford Road. You can’t lose! F---, how embarrassing!

“I’m not sure we have that type of anticipation and rivalry in the Premiership anymore. Whether it be Saints/Leicester or Bath/Gloucester, it’s just different. That was 10 years ago.”

‘There’s an appetite for rugby in Georgia’

Now, Cockerill has found a home away from home in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, after being appointed as head coach of the Lelos and its Black Lion franchise in January. In many respects, owing to the Georgians’ confrontational reputation and Cockerill’s combative modus operandi, there is every chance it could be a match made in heaven, with the initial contact between the two parties having been instigated by Mamuka Gorgodze while he and Cockerill were at Toulon.

Just with everything Cockerill does, too, there is nothing half-hearted about the Georgian move. To borrow football terminology, he has gone in two-footed, moving to Tbilisi and taking on the responsibility of turning Georgia from a side treading water – between the traditional ‘tier one’ and ‘tier two’ brackets – to one which might one day walk on it. What he needs for that, though, is opportunity – not necessarily for Georgia, but more on a regular basis for Black Lion.

“The thing is, when I first discussed with the union about living in Tbilisi, I was a bit hesitant but then you go and visit… it’s an amazing city,” says Cockerill. “Very cosmopolitan, very European. Lots of history – for all sorts of reasons. If that was a URC or Six/Seven Nations destination, it would blow people’s minds of what Georgia’s about. A great city, great facilities, great stadiums and they love their rugby.

“We played Clermont Auvergne in the Challenge Cup this season and 17,000 people came to watch. That’s more than a lot of Premiership teams get. There’s an appetite for it, certainly from the public. We have the stadiums – and it’s a great place to visit. Wine, food, hospitality; it’s an amazing place. We have to back that up on the field but Italy came into the Six Nations in 2000 and then the United Rugby Championship in 2010; we would like to think we’re a bit further ahead than Italy were when they entered those championships.

“But where do we go from here? The Six Nations and southern hemisphere with Japan and Fiji in the Nations Championship, but where do Georgia get left?

“One of the things we don’t have with Black Lion, the players based in Georgia who play for our domestic side, is enough competition. They play in the REC [second tier Six Nations], then there are four months until the summer tour.

“Tests are not the level that is the issue for us. In summer and autumn, we’re going to get good opposition because teams will want to play us. We’re good competition and it’s a good mix of ‘tier one’ and two. REC is a competition, with respect, that we’re probably too good for. It’s a lose-lose for us: if we win, that was what everyone was expecting; if we don’t, it’s a disaster.

“The plan for us is to keep improving as a club team and try to get into the URC – that ball is in motion.”

Richard Cockerill
Cockerill is now focused on improving Georgian rugby having moved to Tbilisi - Getty Images/Levan Verdzeuli

Regarding the potential autumn Test against Wales, Cockerill adds: “There was an opportunity to play Wales outside of the window which, for us, there’s no point playing with just our domestic players. The reality is that our best players are playing in France. We have 50 per cent of our team playing in France. I don’t think it serves any purpose for us to play Wales with just 50 per cent of our best team.”

Of Cockerill’s time in France – as well as Toulon, he started this season as the coach of Montpellier, who are at risk of relegation to the ProD2, before he was sacked – the gritty hooker is of the opinion that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“I can’t say too much but if you take the job then you have to do the job,” says Cockerill. “Whatever the circumstances are around that – and there were some difficult ones – if you do the job and don’t win then you’re going to be under pressure. I took the job on, we didn’t win games, and I got sacked.

“That’s the nature of the business. I’m always someone who takes responsibility for my own actions. The reality is that I thought I could do the job when they offered it to me – and clearly I couldn’t. It was probably the first time. It was a chastising experience, not what you want, but it is what it is. That’s the game. I’ve had a lot of success. Apart from Montpellier, when I’ve been into environments I’ve always improved them. Montpellier just wasn’t to be. You have to take it on the chin, move on and go again.”

Just as he would have done in one of those East Midlands derbies.

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