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'Richard Cockerill, in a game of touch, punched me in the face'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Austin Healey had recalled getting punched by Richard Cockerill at his first-ever Leicester training session, a distinctive style of ‘welcome’ that seemed to be a thing at the Tigers as Tim Stimpson also received a similar greeting when he first turned up. Healey and Stimpson – along with Ben Kay – have entertainingly contributed to the first episode of Rugby Stories, the latest BT Sport Pods series.

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The Leicester trio revealed the not-so-welcome introduction served up on the training ground by Cockerill, the current England assistant coach, while Healey went on to talk about his pre-game popcorn ritual which caused a ruckus prior to the 2001 Heineken Cup final in Paris versus Stade Francais.

That was the final where Martin Johnson gave one of his most inspiring pre-match talks ever by saying nothing, while there was also the awkward situation of both teams getting angsty with each other prior to the Parc des Princes kickoff.

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The episode kicked off with Healy and Stimpson describing what it was like to get punched by Cockerill at their respective first training sessions for Leicester. “I didn’t really know what rugby meant to Leicester, indeed to many clubs until I joined, and I came as this sort of maverick-style player in 1996,” Healey began.

“In my very first training session, Richard Cockerill, in a game of touch, punched me in the face. We had a bit of a scuffle. I asked him, ‘What was that for?’ He said, ‘You’re not welcome here. You’re an outsider.’ I pointed out that he also wasn’t from Leicester. He was from Rugby, but I think that set the tone and that is what they were about. They were all about setting the tone for new people buying into who the club was and who the players needed to be.”

Stimpson had a similar ‘welcome’ story. “I turned up at my first training session, you know, a bit scared of it. I didn’t expect Richard Cockerill to punch me in the face. I was so shocked. I hit him back – and then I got a rollicking from Dean Richards for bringing trouble into the club. But then looking back, I think it was all a stitch-up.

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“I’m pretty sure that was Deano (Dean Richards) just testing out this young kid coming down from Newcastle asking, ‘Is he one of us?’ It was a tough school. It’s not what I wanted on my first day, but it sort of set the tone that to play for Leicester, you have got to earn that shirt. It’s not an exaggeration, but you earn it with blood.”

Later in the show, Healey recalled his popcorn yarn from the night before the 2001 European final four years after they had been beaten by Brive in their previous European decider. “In 1997 there was a lot of smiling and joking and laughing. In 2001, the hotel the night before was like you’re at a funeral. There were not a lot of talking people, (instead they were) looking at each other and snarling.

“Most people probably went to bed early. I went out, got my popcorn, and then came back. It was a 40-minute taxi ride to get our popcorn, I came back and started eating it. And I had this other superstition as part of it, it was a sub-superstition that no one was allowed to eat my popcorn until I’d finished with it.

“Will Johnson walked past me as I was on the physio table eating my popcorn and having a massage. He put his hand in and took a mouthful, so I threw the popcorn over him, pushed him, went back to reception, ordered another cab, went back out to the cinema, bought another popcorn and came back. This time nobody touched it.

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“The only person that had ever eaten it before was Leon Lloyd. He just leaned over with his mouth… and he got knocked out the following day in the game, he was stretchered off. In the subsequent game in 2001, Will Johnson broke his wrist on that right hand so I told him this was his own fault. ‘You mess with the popcorn and karma messes with you’.”

Switching to what captain Johnson inspiringly did with his Leicester team before the final in Paris, Healey said: “He gave probably the best speech I’ve ever heard him give because he didn’t actually say anything He got everyone in a huddle and we were all waiting for him to speak – and he didn’t say a word!

“He just looked at everyone. For what felt like 20 minutes, like not a single word said. Guys were squeezing and squeezing and squeezing. They were getting angrier and angrier and angrier. And I think he just sensed that he knew everybody was right on the edge. Everybody was completely ready for the game.

“I tell people that he was actually trying to stare into your soul and ask you a question, ‘Are you ready?‘ But he already knew that there was nobody in that starting 15 or indeed the 22 that wasn’t ready to do whatever they needed to do.”

As for the shenanigans before kickoff, Kay explained: “They [Stade Francais] thought we’ll do the old thing of keeping a team waiting. We were meant to run out together…”

“Everyone’s sweating, on edge,” added Healey. “People on the verge of losing it completely. It was probably only 30 seconds, it might have been a minute. And Martin was saying to the ref, ‘Where are they?’ He said, ‘I’ve called them to come in.’ He then went forget that and walked out.”

It resulted in the teams going face-to-face on the pitch before the start. “We were literally nose to nose… it wasn’t a show for the cameras, this was as big as it got.”

“You had two sides face-to-face with the referee standing in the middle,” added Healey. “It was like a Conor McGregor standoff before his bouts and I was convinced it was going to go off at that stage and people would have been sent off before the game because they were on proper edge.”

  • For the in-depth Leicester Tigers story, check out BT Sport’s new podcast series, Rugby Stories, part of the BT Sport Pods lineup of podcasts. Every Monday, Rugby Stories, presented by Craig Doyle, will spotlight and celebrate English club rugby history. Btsport.com/pods

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