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FEATURE Rory Kockott: 'I've had hundreds of messages - one said he wanted to see my wife bleed'

Rory Kockott: 'I've had hundreds of messages - one said he wanted to see my wife bleed'
2 weeks ago

The message arrived in a flurry of hate peppering Rory Kockott’s inbox. It stood out even amongst the customary bile, the kind of profanity and abuse and insults Kockott receives at least once a month. ‘I want to see your wife bleed.’

“When I think about that message, what goes on in that person’s heart and head?” Kockott, still tearing up trees behind the Stade Francais pack, reflects. “That was only a few weeks ago, after we played Toulouse. The futile stuff that gets sent to you is ridiculous. I’ve lost count of them. I’ve received, literally, hundreds.

“Generally you are sworn at in every single expression possible and told you’re the biggest a-hole to ever exist because fans are in the emotional zone and just can’t restrain themselves. I just ‘b and d’ – block and delete.

Rory Kockott will turn 38 in late June but is still delivering blockbuster moments for Stade Francais (Photo by GAIZKA IROZ / AFP) (Photo by GAIZKA IROZ/AFP via Getty Images)

“I’ve seen spectators who will pull all kinds of signs and throw all kinds of insults, and are outside the stadium afterwards saying, ‘hi Rory, how are you? Can I have your signature?’ They are almost scared to ask you a question. Half an hour earlier they were telling you to go to hell. To me it shows the fickleness of any professional sport.”

Kockott is unperturbed by the horrors of his DMs. He is too long in the tooth to fluster himself with the rantings – or even the threats – of the deranged, with his sparkling professional career spanning close to two decades.

He left the Sharks of South Africa in 2011 and won the French crown twice with that most rugby-obsessed of Top 14 heartlands, Castres, in a dozen years at the club. He earned caps for his adopted nation, played at a Rugby World Cup, and became a French citizen. Last autumn, he scrapped his retirement to help old mentor, Laurent Labit, in Paris and has kept All Black Brad Weber out of the number nine jersey for chunks of the campaign. He started ahead of Weber on Saturday night, a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday, as Stade saw off Toulon to seal second place in the regular season.

Kockott the rugby player is by turns ruthless, belligerent and utterly domineering. A scrum-half whose competitive urge runs so deep, he will shunt every boundary, terrorise every opponent and eke out the tiniest advantage to win big. He is supremely skilled, but has melded the murky tactics of the old school to a diligent professional approach and an appetite for physicality rare among scrum-halves.

Yet Kockott the man is a kaleidoscope of interests and passions and vulnerability. The human mind fascinates him. He is steeped in nature from his childhood on a smallholding in the South African bush and runs safari tours and hunting expeditions across the Eastern Cape. Little excites him more than immersing visitors in the diversity of home. Teammates recall being sat on the bus while Kockott thumbed through brochures of rare cattle breeds. He has spent time in one of France’s largest meat processors to learn about butchery and food preparation.

When matchday arrives, Kockott wages his own form of war. He plays a role: the pantomime villain. This dichotomy fuels false perceptions and stokes dangerous angst.

“You’re on TV, you are seen, you are going to be judged. The number one thing to remember is no judgement has to pass unless you approve it. I certainly don’t worry what the public might conjure up.

“Rugby has evolved. What we like to see now is a good model player who keeps quiet, does their job, doesn’t make too much fuss. We tend to forget rugby is a sport. We are paid to perform; do everything you can to dominate. You are going to get the couch referees and spectators who are dislike something you do. We are very quick to try and shut people down and cancel people out.

“Before I came to Stade Francais, the physios thought I was the biggest idiot in French rugby. After spending two months with them, they wanted to sit down and talk with me every day. It shows who we are on the rugby field has got absolutely nothing to do with who we are and what we believe in.”

Kockott won the Top 14 crown twice as a totemic figure for the Castres club (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP via Getty Images)

People never saw Kockott the doting the husband and father; Kockott the trembling wreck, crying in his shower every night because the move to France was, at first, too much for him. They don’t see Kockott the safari ranger, walking through the African wilderness with a clutch of enraptured guests at his back. Or Kockott the thinker, who says ‘culture is the strongest thing in the world – nothing can break it’, and talks about spirituality and bonds far more than he does trophies and caps.

In a sporting sense, he remains an outlier; his style perhaps a throwback to a bygone age. And rugby folk who baulk at this might ask themselves what they want from their stars. Are they sated by the polite and mundane, where language can be sanitised, individuality suppressed and personality stifled? Or do they seek entertainment and expression, players who are openly aggressive, make mischief and, yes, sometimes, display a nasty edge to get the job done?

“People want you to be a real human but also to be a performer,” Kockott says. “They want you to be so non-human and humane at the same time.

I’ve definitely copped more than I’ve given, and I’m very happy to take it – that’s part of the game.

“Things have evolved a hell of a lot – intentional dangerous play has been ruled out completely. Rugby is always going to be dangerous. We have the opportunity to prepare ourselves to play this dangerous game every weekend. That’s the beauty of it, that’s what pulls so much of the public in and makes it such a spectacle. The physical, combative, gladiatorial part of the sport has such a rich history. I invest in playing the rugby I want to play, instead of trying to fit somebody’s mould. I have to push the limits. I want to push the limits.”

Toughness was baked – or maybe beaten – into Kockott by his rugby education. Farm boys are never soft, particularly when they are the youngest of four children, and Kockott was a muscular young half-back when he broke through in the golden years of Super Rugby. He jousted with the giants of the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks in a tremendous Sharks team. He remembers it as a kill-or-be-killed ecosystem.

“Being a good guy is great, and being a good guy off the field is very important. But on the field there were no rules. The number of times I got my head shoved in the ground, pushed off the ball, pulled back, tripped, taken out under the rucks. I don’t take it personally; I just do my job.

“The laws have become a lot stricter but they were absolutely ruthless in terms of that kind of battle. That’s what the battle is on a rugby field: dominate or be dominated. It wasn’t just rugby we were playing; it was a whole different physical and mental battle. A lot of people don’t want to see that nowadays, they want 80 minutes to be clean and crisp without any scenery.

“What’s great now is every angle is covered and nothing goes unwatched. I’ve definitely copped more than I’ve given, and I’m very happy to take it – that’s part of the game. I’m not going to whine about it. I’m going to give it back as best as I can.”

Kockott won 11 caps for France after qualifying on residency (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the years, Kockott has tangled with some of the meanest specimens the sport has churned out. He’s been whacked by Bakkies Botha and smoked by Jamie Cudmore. He slapped Adam Thompson having taken umbrage at the flanker hurling him to ground after giving a pass. He dangled Maxime Machenaud upside down and took a headbutt from the scrum-half’s incensed Racing teammate Juan Imhoff as penance. He was embroiled in a scrap with Chris Ashton during a pre-season friendly which earned both men suspensions. Has a line ever been crossed?

“Of course. There are very few players who haven’t at least once. I certainly have, and you always regret it. You feel bad about letting yourself and your team down. But people don’t understand it if they haven’t played the sport. Sometimes that push a little too far, that hand in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“When it happens, you feel like absolute dog s***e. You don’t want to do it. But in the game, in the heat of the moment, it happens. You don’t escape the crucifixion afterwards because everyone wants to hang you.”

It sounds like Kockott is hinting at the infamous alleged eye-gouge on Munster flank Chris Cloete. It happened during Castres’ Champions Cup victory in 2018 and is the most serious charge on his rap sheet. The maximum sanction for so heinous an offence is substantial but, after pleading guilty to making contact with the eye area, the disciplinary committee banned Kockott for only three weeks. There was widespread uproar in Ireland.

“I spoke to Chris and could gather very quickly [the complaint] came from a higher level. It’s so long ago I can’t even remember the exact detail.

I’ve never thought about what people should think of me. That’s their problem. They’re going to waste more energy deciding who I should be and what I should do.

“I thought about that incident in depth. We weren’t meant to win that game. I believe the Munster coaches at that time wanted to prove a point and say, ‘we want you to be subdued and not push the limits so that we can win’. It’s the same for any other team. It happens a lot when you play the European sides in the Champions Cup.

“That was the time I actually realised what you do on the rugby field has nothing to do with who you are. In a team environment, incidents are not even mentioned, but the public still hold that opinion.”

The competitive fumes are still burning. Kockott was unfulfilled as a coach at Castres last year, and played a handful of games to ease the club’s scrum-half injury logjam. His body is still in remarkable condition. His relationship with the game, and the forces that keep him wedded to it, is complex.

“When I was a youngster, I used to hate rugby. I loved it because I played it but I never watched a game on TV. After quite a few years you start to find more passion and you catch it a bit more through the media.

“You question yourself: why am I here? It’s a great question, and you should ask yourself it very often. What is it I want to do here? When Laurent asked me to come to Stade, my wife said to me, ‘you’ve got to go and do it’. I second-guessed myself. There’s a purpose I need to serve in being here, to the team, to those around the team, to myself or to the coaches.

“I feel I have a role to fulfil. Not just a rugby player because that would be underestimating your human impact a lot. If I can positively impact one or two people around me in the time I have, that’s what our job is as humans. Yes, the fact we get paid and enjoy doing it is another purpose. But the deeper purpose, I like trying to find those and to give real meaning to this highly spotlighted sport we play and its surface emotions.

“It would be sad for me to get to the end of my career and know I’ve only been involved at that surface level, and I’ve never been able to really invest and connect and help people out and develop relationships. That is an opportunity we often miss. It is such a privilege we have in a team environment. There is nothing else like it.”

The hateful messages keep rolling in to Kockott’s inbox, as they do for many of the game’s most confrontational protagonists. Just ask Owen Farrell. Kockott has never reported his abusers, either to the club or the police.

“Absolutely no. You know what I feel? I’m not in control of the world we live in. People are going to get what they deserve and attract what they produce in life. We are the fruits of our labour. Those guys sending messages are going to be picking that fruit sooner or later. I really don’t let it get to me. It’s so typical of the standard, nonsensical supporter who really doesn’t understand his own life’s purpose.

“I’ve never thought about what people should think of me. That’s their problem. They’re going to waste more energy deciding who I should be and what I should do. The negative public will always have that decision to take and be very quick to jump on to the bandwagon.”

There’s a moment from the 2013 Top 14 final which encapsulates Kockott in all of his brilliant, pugnacious glory. The game is level in the final minute of the first half and Freddie Michalak has spilled a ball on his own 22, giving Castres a scrum. Bernard Laporte, the Toulon supremo, is already halfway down the tunnel.

But there’s Kockott, belittling Michalak with a pat on the head which earns a frustrated shove from his rival and a talking-to from Jerome Garces. There he is again, cackling by the set-piece while Michalak stands motionless and simmers. A few seconds later, anticipating a drop-goal attempt, Michalak leads a cohort of red-shirted defensive shooters. Kockott throws a dummy and scorches under the Toulon sticks. He kisses the ball and raises it to the heavens. Castres win the brennus. Kockott wins his duel.

A big-game player. A prodigious, calculating fighter. A force you want in your corner. But so, so much more besides.

Comments

1 Comment
T
The Late News 15 days ago

Great article Jamie. Rory was and remains unique.

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