How two Tigers brought bite back to Edinburgh and Newcastle and the many subplots to their Champions Cup tussle
In his infamous book published almost 20 years ago, Richard Cockerill tells a story about the day he brought an almighty pasting upon himself. The moment he poked the great bear that was Dean Richards and roused the fury of his giant Leicester Tigers team-mate.
“We were playing ‘touch’ in training. I’d turned to chase Matt Poole and as I did so I felt someone grab my shirt and pull me back,” Cockerill wrote.
“Without a second thought I swung my arm back and smashed whoever did it right in the chops. Of course, that person had to be Deano, didn’t it?
“He rubbed his jaw for a moment then he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and started laying into me.
“He was punching me and I was trying to avoid his fists because he’s not exactly the weakest of men. A few blows were traded but I can assure you the vast majority landed on one place – the top of my head. You mix it with Deano at your peril.”
Deano: the indomitable, unflinching juggernaut at the heart of the toughest pack around. Deano: the totem who set the standards and schooled upstarts like Cockerill in what it meant to be a Tiger. Deano: the two-time Lion, the massive number eight that could, as the storied Bill McLaren once surmised, only be uprooted with military assistance.
That book is notorious because of what Cockerill wrote in it about the England set-up of the time and what he felt about the way Sir Clive Woodward ran the operation. But the reverence for Richards and his role in Cockerill’s formative rugby years is blaring.
“In the Deano era, you always wondered how you were going to win if he didn’t play,” the fearsome little hooker said.
Cockerill and Richards are middle-aged men now and the game is vastly different to the one they were playing two decades ago. Still, their paths intertwine. Richards coached Cockerill during his final years at Tigers. After retiring, Cockerill became Leicester forwards coach and locked horns with Richards, who was then in charge of Harlequins. They met seven times when Cockerill took the top job at Welford Road and Richards returned from his “Bloodgate” ban to revamp Newcastle Falcons. Cockerill won six of them.
They face each other again on Friday, as Richards leads his Falcons north to do battle with Cockerill’s Edinburgh in the first match of an enormous Champions Cup double-header.
These two aren’t Tigers anymore; their clubs don’t have that intimidating bedrock of hard-won glory, nor the aura their belligerence and at times violence of yesteryear commanded. They’re embarking on different projects.
Cockerill is a season-and-a-half into his and has done a fine job in revitalising beleaguered Edinburgh. Richards has been at Newcastle for six years now, steadily building a core of local talent and taking them from the second tier in 2012 to a Premiership semi-final last season.
There has been a Scottish vein running through the club since the dawn of professionalism, when Doddie Weir and Gary Armstrong shared a car south from the borders to take their first steps as paid athletes and helped Falcons win the Premiership in 1998. Alan Tait and George Graham were part of that side and Stuart Grimes joined it soon after.
It was at Newcastle that Phil Godman learned his trade under the ultimate fly-half mentor, Jonny Wilkinson. Tim Visser and Tim Swinson came through the ranks before forging successful careers with Edinburgh, Glasgow and Scotland caps.
Craig Hamilton, Rory Lawson, Euan Murray, Mike Blair, Scott Lawson, Ally Hogg – the list goes on. Even now, the Scots influence remains.
It is a shame not to see John Hardie set loose against his old team-mates and the employers who let him go in the summer. Hardie’s travails are well-documented but worth retelling. The flanker was suspended by Scottish Rugby a year ago for what the governing body called “gross misconduct”. The story goes that his use of cocaine was the reason for the ban. Scottish Rugby never confirmed that but did nothing to dissuade the notion.
Hardie is a wonderful flanker, an old-school fetcher and a thunderous tackler. Injury concerns hampered his quest for a new club but Falcons were happy to take him in October. Already that move looks a smart one for all concerned – not least Gregor Townsend and his World Cup preparations. Hardie made 18 tackles and missed none in Newcastle’s pulsating win over Northampton Saints, snatched six minutes after the clock went red.
Falcons are embroiled in an almighty relegation scrap, the ferocity of which the Premiership has not known for years, but they have the grit to get clear of it and Hardie is exactly the sort of bloke who can help them do so.
The Kiwi is not registered for European action and so we will not see a mouth-watering joust with Scottish open-side rival Hamish Watson, but his resurgence is most encouraging.
Instead, we get another compelling Scottish duel. We know all about Gary Graham, his England call-up a year ago that felt like a political missile from Eddie Jones, marking Townsend’s card with Scottish Rugby looking harder than ever for eligible talent south of the border. And we know about his return to the country of his birth and Scotland’s autumn Test squad last month.
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The flanker’s tale is fascinating one. Graham is a gritty council estate lad who has had to scrap for everything he has earned in rugby and taken plenty kicks along the way.
He was born in Stirling, a town in the shadow of the Wallace Monument. His father, the aforementioned George Graham, is about as vociferous a Scot as the claymore-wielding freedom fighter himself.
Graham Junior grew up in Carlisle. He won Scotland age-grade recognition, but he couldn’t get a spot in an academy. So he trained as an electrician and played club rugby at Gala in the Scottish borders. Three years ago, Jersey Reds offered him a deal to join them in the Championship. It was a measly offer but it meant becoming a professional rugby player, so Graham took it and struggled to make ends meet. It wasn’t until 2017 that Richards spied his talents and gave him a crack at the big-time.
When Jones sent for him, he was hardly going to slam down the phone. Not with what he’d been through. Not after only a handful of Premiership outings. Not with international rugby beckoning and an eye-watering match fee on offer for England’s Test players.
Graham gave an interview around that time that created all sorts of headlines. He spoke about how desperate he was to play in the Calcutta Cup, to “make 1,000 tackles and shove it in their face”.
Those comments, he says, were blown out of all proportion, but no-one has denied they were made. You can only imagine the hideous slaughtering he got when he fetched up at Murrayfield, ready to pledge himself to thistle over rose.
Graham is an unflinching character and he might reckon he has a point to prove to some sceptics at Murrayfield. He lines up opposite Watson and another Scotland contender in Jamie Ritchie, both of whom return after stupendous autumn shifts.
Cockerill has his heavyweights back and how he needs them. Little can be read into Edinburgh’s recent form so ravaged have they been by injury, Test duty and the need to give heavily worked players a rest.
They lost at Dragons and in the most savage of circumstances, sent a scratch team to Munster last week that were duly steamrolled. Cockerill spoke about having his hands tied but heading to Musgrave Park off a five-day turnaround missing more than a dozen internationals was more like having his entire body trussed up.
He has his Scotland contingent again now and he has his biggest and most important player in Bill Mata, the sensational Fijian who is the top ball-carrier in the Pro14 and Champions Cup, back in the van.
Both Newcastle and Edinburgh need to start motoring again domestically but in Europe, each has a precious carrot.
The two unfancied sides in Pool 5 currently occupy the top two slots. Falcons became only the second team to beat Toulon at home in the Champions Cup then floored Montpellier with an 89th-minute try. They’re getting pretty good at these late salvos.
Edinburgh are two points behind them after a narrow loss in Montpellier and dishing out a Murrayfield pummelling to Toulon.
Newcastle have that tussle for Premiership survival to consider and a ton of injured firepower, particularly in the front-row where their tight-head stocks are stretched to breaking point. But this is far too juicy an opportunity for them to take their eye off the ball.
Montpellier are still well in the mix. Win at Toulon, and Vern Cotter’s side will fancy their chances of topping the lot, while likely ensuring their troubled French opponents abandon the competition and play with even less heart than in their anaemic showings so far.
And so back we come to Cockers and Deano. Just like that training paddock slugfest all those years ago, the big beasts go at it again. A quarter-final may be the prize for the last Tiger standing.
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