It’s highly unlikely that when Richard Cockerill fetched up at Edinburgh in the summer of 2017, he expected to remain in post for six years, to still be driving and crafting the project he signed up for what seems like an age ago. Cockerill’s new deal, announced on Wednesday by Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson on a BBC Scotland podcast, runs to 2023 and will make him the longest-serving Edinburgh coach of the professional era.
Seduced is probably too strong a word – an old-fashioned studs-and-knees trampling truly seduces Cockerill – but you get the sense that the club and the city have got to him in a way that he never expected. In fairness, they seem an incongruous old match, the pugnacious, bull-headed Englishman and the decaying Scottish pro team. Who saw them hitting it off quite so spectacularly?
Who reckoned one of the most ferocious, working-class figureheads in the game would gel with a hefty contingent of privately educated players? Or that the man who won everything on offer in England and Europe with Leicester’s relentless winning machine, who was accustomed to riches and titles and the highest of standards, would be the perfect coach for a team who have won nothing?
On the face of it, Edinburgh looked like a fix-up-and-flip, an opportunity for Cockerill to re-establish his credentials to the English market after a brutal parting of ways with Tigers months earlier. Certainly, Edinburgh were in a hapless state.
Cockerill inherited a squad mired in mediocrity, bereft of culture and belief and peppered with players who had nosedived light years beneath their best form. He cast a ruthless eye over the place and saw a club that had lost touch with its heritage and a team who couldn’t be trusted to deliver their best rugby.
Excellent boost for the improving Scottish outfit https://t.co/K4KIlKhZod
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 26, 2020
In some ways, he has dragged them up by their bootlaces. He read the riot act to players carrying too much beef. He took those highly skilled stragglers and by hook or by crook, he got them motoring again. Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist are the starkest examples, but Rory Sutherland has also come roaring back from a heinous long-term injury to unprecedented levels of fitness and the kind of form that puts him bang in the frame for the British and Irish Lions tour.
Recruitment in the Cockerill era at Edinburgh has been consistently sound and in many cases brilliant. The hits vastly outweigh the misses. Juan Pablo Socino never quite got going, Simon Hickey could not realise his potential and injuries meant John Barclay and Robbie Fruean never prospered as they and the club would have wanted.
But when you run the gamut of Cockerill signings, the results are overwhelmingly positive. Duhan van der Merwe was a relative unknown in the Montpellier reserves when Cockerill picked him up. The South African winger even failed his medical at Edinburgh, but the coach pushed to keep him. Three years on, van der Merwe is among the most colossal attacking weapons in Europe, with 31 tries and an eye-watering volume of yards made and defenders smashed in 58 matches. He is now on the verge of Scotland honours.
Pierre Schoeman is arguably the top-performing loosehead in the Guinness PRO14. Mike Willemse, Jaco van der Walt, Nick Haining, Murray Douglas and Nic Groom have all made telling impacts. Cockerill took James Johnstone from the national sevens squad and the centre became an integral part in Edinburgh’s run to the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals last season.
Burgeoning talent, too, has emerged and flourished. Darcy Graham has long been earmarked for greatness, but less so George Taylor and Luke Crosbie, both of whom made blistering ascents to the senior ranks on Cockerill’s watch. Just as importantly, premier talent has been retained. Viliame Mata and Hamish Watson were two immense re-signings despite significant interest from France and England, and it says a lot about how Edinburgh are tracking that both opted to stay.
Even when faced with gross adversity early in his reign, Cockerill was able to handle troubled players and get them firing once more. Magnus Bradbury was stripped of the captaincy for an incident on a night out which he then tried to conceal; John Hardie was suspended by Scottish Rugby for alleged cocaine use. Both returned to play significant roles in the tail end of Cockerill’s first campaign. Bradbury remains a big part of the squad and a regular feature for Scotland.
Privately, there are reservations about Cockerill’s methods. Some members of the squad have been upset and disappointed by his attritional style – both physically and verbally – and his choice of language when talking to players. There is no suggestion of a rebellion, but equally, any scrutiny has been limited because of the compelling results Edinburgh are racking up. Is he a modern, progressive coach? Perhaps not. Does that matter to Dodson, or to the Edinburgh fans who are at last enjoying a winning team?
Cockers enjoying the luxury of having a home semi-final already in the bag https://t.co/QAxfFhicnq
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 27, 2020
Until Cockerill arrived, the club had never reached the knockout phase of the league since play-offs were introduced in 2009/10. He got them there in his first season. In his second, Edinburgh topped their Champions Cup pool and ought to have put away Munster in the quarter-finals, but didn’t have the cattle to maintain a challenge in the PRO14. This term, a maiden home semi-final is secured and a Challenge Cup quarter-final against Semi Radradra-less Bordeaux beckons next month.
Compare Cockerill’s win percentage to any of his four permanent predecessors and he handsomely outstrips them all. His return of just under 65 per cent beats Alan Solomons’ 47, Michael Bradley’s 30, Rob Moffat’s 43 and Andy Robinson’s 50, even though the latter took Edinburgh to their best-ever finish of second in the old round-robin league format.
By any objective measure, Edinburgh are a team transformed. They score more tries and concede fewer. Their players are fitter and stronger. Their squad, even in these strained times, looks stronger. And they win far more games against far better opposition. Stylistically, they have a winning template and players to make it work and seem to be adding more gears to their attack. Getting van der Merwe, Graham and Kinghorn on the ball more often is the next step.
Edinburgh are still miles from where Cockerill wants them to be, but they have an intoxicating shot at making next month’s the PRO14 final and a very credible challenge for European silver. Perhaps most importantly, they have continuity and stability in a coach whose thirst for success is virtually insatiable.
Scotland one up on their English rugby counterparts https://t.co/Yim9ZWqvmN
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 21, 2020
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