Rugby Union: England's best example of a passion player

Richard Cockerill's public image of an uppity hooker is one he relishes. Chris Hewett met the non-stop talker
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONLY a mother could love him. If, in the considered opinion of one of his rival hookers, Richard Cockerill is blessed with "a face you never get tired of punching", he is also the self-appointed embodiment of the bulldog spirit, an enthusiastic practitioner of rugby's black arts and the proud architect of the most calculated act of sporting wind-upmanship since Douglas Jardine employed bodyline as a fail-safe means of bursting every blood vessel in Australia. In other words, he gets under your skin and stays there.

And does this reputation as a professional pain worry the man who, last November, famously trespassed on the All Blacks' haka at Old Trafford and lived to dine out on his story? Does it heck. "It's just me being me, isn't it?" he says, an impudent grin creasing its way across the features that launched a thousand dust-ups.

"It takes all different sorts to make a world and while I'm quite happy to admit that I occasionally push things a bit far, I certainly don't sit there in the dressing-room thinking: `Oh God, why did I do that?' I'm not a great one for regrets. In fact, I look at it this way: if opponents spend valuable time losing their rags with me instead of concentrating on the game, it's money in the bank."

Cockerill dons the letter B when he plays for his beloved Leicester and there is a wide range of theory as to what the "B" might stand for. With England, he wraps himself in a No 2 shirt once worn with distinction by strong, silent types - John Pullin, say, or Peter Wheeler - but which now, it seems, is the exclusive preserve of chippy, uppity front-row irritants with far too much to say for themselves. Put Brian Moore, Mark Regan, Phil Greening and the present incumbent in the same room and you have a thoroughly bolshie debating society capable of talking the hind legs off a Springbok.

Yet for more seasons than he would care to remember, Cockerill appeared to be talking to himself. Certainly, Jack Rowell turned a deaf ear to his claims for international recognition until, as much through Hobson's Choice as anything else, he handed the most talkative Tiger of them all a flight ticket to Buenos Aires for last year's two-Test series with Argentina.

"I suppose Regan's selection for the Lions opened the door, so I've got that much to thank him for," admits Cockerill, whose intense vocal and physical rivalry with the equally forthright West countryman has proved one of the more entertaining private conflicts of the last few seasons. "While he was available and Greening was fit, I wasn't in with a shout as far as Jack was concerned. But Mark was elsewhere last summer, Phil got injured early in the first Test and suddenly, my opportunity was there, staring me in the face.

"Looking back, it couldn't have worked out more positively. The Argentinians may not be the mightiest all-round force in world rugby but they scrummage better than virtually anyone, so I knew that a couple of quality performances against the likes of Grau, Mendez and Reggiardo, could only give my career a leg up.

"The Pumas hit us with all the brute strength they could muster and the atmosphere was seriously hostile, but we soaked it all up and went back for more."

As a result, England quickly decided they wanted more of Cockerill. Clive Woodward's appointment as national coach sparked an immediate bonfire of Rowell's selectorial vanities and after a strangely ill-judged punt on the immature talents of Andy Long against the Wallabies last autumn, he made the 27-year-old, dyed-in-the-wool Midlander his No 1 choice - a status heavily reinforced by the timely knee injury that allowed him to miss an embarrassing afternoon of set-piece torment against the French in February.

Recalled for the watershed match with Wales at Twickenham, Cockerill helped a much-maligned front row regain some credibility by spearheading a pushover try. England subsequently forced a penalty try against the Scots and while the Irish threesome is sufficiently big and ugly to look after itself in this afternoon's Five Nations finale, the red rose heavy brigade are in more confident mood than at any time in the last 12 months.

"People say it was only Wales or only Scotland and I'd be the first to acknowledge that the French front row is the most powerful proposition in Europe," says Cockerill. "I may not have faced them in Paris but I went up against Califano and Tournaire in this season's Leicester-Toulouse matches and they are very definitely a handful, probably the best I've encountered.

"But you don't find any poor front rows on the international circuit - both the Welsh and the Scots have good individuals - and we deserve some credit for our achievements.

"Having said that, I expect the Irish to ask us some pretty tough questions at Twickenham and we'll have to be on our game to deal with them. I don't know a great deal about this bloke Corrigan, but Keith Wood was an automatic choice for the Lions last summer and played like one, too, while Paul Wallace has proved time and time again how clever he is, not only at dealing with some of the biggest, strongest props in the world but at taking the game to the opposing front row. I think he's a great scrummager, actually; short, stocky and very awkward."

Exactly the same might be said of Cockerill himself - as the "short, fat boy" at school, he was ordered to play loose-head prop until it became clear he would not grow enough to sustain himself in the position - and he takes enormous pleasure in imposing his personality on what is supposed to be a big man's game.

"It can be very demanding in the front row, especially now that the hooker is expected to give everything to the shove on the opposition put-in rather than attempt to out-hook his opposite number, as they did years ago. I don't even think about striking for an opponent's ball and if we take one against the head, it's the result of shoving them off it rather than pinching a crafty one.

"But another good Leicester boy, Neil Back, has proved that you don't have to be a giant to survive in the back row and I'd like to think I'm doing the same in my position.

"It's all passion with me; I give everything I have to give whenever I play and if that gets the crowd going, all well and good. They've paid good money to come and watch, so why not give them a show?"

Much to the amusement of a Twickenham audience seldom accused of wearing its heart on its wax-jacketed sleeve, Cockerill has been entirely faithful to his balls-and-all credo this season. He is what he is and he says what he means. Good on him.