Brent Cockbain: Aussie brings poignancy and power to new land of hope

Adopted Welshman is talking positively after all the negatives. Tim Glover hears how a hero of the Six Nations came to terms with tragedy
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The Independent Online

Brent Cockbain does not possess a mobile phone, and that makes his time at the allotment sweeter than the sweetest of sweet peas. Cockbain is possibly unique among professional rugby players in that not only does he rent a patch of fertile land near the River Taff in Cardiff on which to grow vegetables, but he is incommunicado while doing so. How tall are his leeks? Ask his team-mates in the Wales squad.

Brent Cockbain does not possess a mobile phone, and that makes his time at the allotment sweeter than the sweetest of sweet peas. Cockbain is possibly unique among professional rugby players in that not only does he rent a patch of fertile land near the River Taff in Cardiff on which to grow vegetables, but he is incommunicado while doing so. How tall are his leeks? Ask his team-mates in the Wales squad.

They are currently enjoying his gooseberry chutney, which is served in the team room at the Vale of Glamorgan Golf and Country Club, Wales's headquarters. It is the Red Dragons' four-star answer to England's five-star hotel base in Bagshot, but nobody in that part of Surrey is eating homemade chutney.

"Working on an allotment is seen over here as an old man's occupation, but it's not the case," Cockbain says. "I meet a fantastic cross-section of people and we talk about all sorts of things. There's no better way of getting your mind off rugby. It helps me to relax. I love gardening, cooking and fishing."

Cockbain, who is 6ft 8in, does not look like Compo out of Last of the Summer Wine. He is taller than Jack's beanstalk and at 30 is in his prime. He is also the first person born in Coffs Harbour to play for Wales. You don't see too many Aussies heading for Pontypridd, but Cockbain is different.

Apart from playing gooseberry he has also brought something to the second row of a Welsh team who are performing successfully in the Six Nations' Championship. If a player is good enough, somebody will spot him somewhere. It happened for Cockbain in Queensland. "South of Cairns, I grew up in a place called Coconuts which was between a big river and the sea. Up to the age of 15 I played rugby league and then switched to union, and that has allowed me to see a lot of the world."

He followed his brother Matt into the local team, the Innisfail Vikings, and from there it was the brighter lights of Brisbane. While Matt became a Wallaby, Brent played for Queensland. In 2000 he married a Welsh nurse, Kate, whom he had met in Sydney. Brent had a season with London Irish - "The city was a bit much for a country boy" - before joining Pontypridd. "I loved it there. I had three enjoyable seasons with a fantastic bunch of people."

After the reign of Graham Henry, which coincided with the Grannygate scandal, Cockbain became eligible for Wales on residential grounds, and the New Zealander Steve Hansen, Henry's successor, made him a member of the Taffia, promoting him to the World Cup squad.

"Brent lives here, he is eligible, he is married to a Welsh woman, he has committed himself to Welsh rugby so I'm saying he is Welsh," Hansen said at the time. "He's no different to Tony Marsh, who has played for France, or the South African boy Stuart Abbott, who plays for England. Brent offers something different. He's the only lock in the country who is over 6ft 6in that has the ability to play Test rugby."

Hansen went on: "Brent is not called 'disaster' for nothing. He's all shoulders, knees and elbows, an enforcer in the legal sense of the word who scares people and does the dirty work."

"Fantastic" is one of Cockbain's favourite words, and the disaster that was to befall him and his family last year was so cruel as almost to suspend belief. "I was in South Africa with Wales and was undergoing pool recovery at the hotel after a training session. Alan Phillips [the team manager] told me to ring my wife as a matter of urgency. I was on a plane that night but I didn't know a lot about it. Our son Toby had been taken ill and had undergone exploratory brain surgery. He had a tumour. A week later he had a 10-hour operation, and as far as anybody was aware it had been successful.

"He had been doing really well, but then on 17 September he passed away. He was a wonderful little boy. He was always happy and loved to be around people. When I made my debut for Wales he was at the match and he was only six days old. He was at the World Cup and had a Welsh jersey. He'd have been a true little Welshman.

"Toby died three weeks after his first birthday. The day of his party was one of the sunniest of the year. We had a fire engine, a bouncy castle, the works. He'd been treated at Heath Hospital and the staff did a fantastic job. Nobody could have done any more. Toby had a very rare condition and there have only been about five instances of that particular tumour. There is nothing that anybody could have done that would have changed the outcome.

"It was one of those things, the luck of the draw. It seems like we had him for much longer than a year. We had the gift of extra time with him and had two wonderful months after his operation."

Will Greenwood, the England centre, and his wife went through similar heartbreak with the death of a baby. There has been no shared experience between the two players. "This is not a club you want to be part of," Cockbain said.

Kate is expecting their second child in April, and next month the Toby Lloyd Cockbain Foundation will be launched at a fundraising dinner in Swansea. "We wanted to do something positive from a negative situation," Brent said. "I still visit the hospital and I see the uncertainty that other parents have to go through. It would have been criminal not to contribute to a very worthy cause."

The cause is Latch, a voluntary organisation set up to support the special needs of the children's oncology centre in Wales, which will shortly move to a purpose-built unit at the University of Wales Hospital in Cardiff. The centre, which provides practical and emotional support to families and promotes research into childhood cancer, is dependent on public donations.

The highlight of the dinner at the Towers Hotel will be a charity auction, and among the lots are casts of the silver boots worn by Gavin Henson when he kicked Wales to victory over England in Cardiff on 5 February.

Cockbain has become accustomed to the dazzling footwork of Henson and Shane Williams, who are fellow Neath-Swansea Ospreys. "What's fantastic about them is that not only do they do their jobs but they are capable of some amazing feats," Cockbain said. "As a kid I used to watch this championship on TV, and this is some experience."

Cockbain joined the fledgling region when the Celtic Warriors, who had incorporated Pontypridd, folded last year. "At the time it seemed like a disaster and we weren't paid for a month, but it's worked out really well," he said. "The Warriors had a good team and could have done something but it wasn't to be, and there's no point worrying about something that's out of your control.

"I looked at my options and I'm fortunate to have joined the Ospreys. When we move into a new stadium next season there'll be very few clubs with better facilities. A professional career is short, so it's important to make the right choice. Ours was to stay in Wales and try and help to make the country stronger."

Having beaten England and Italy, Wales's third leg of the Six Nations is against France in Paris on Saturday. Cockbain, who says he is au fait with the Welsh national anthem, scored his first try against Italy in Rome while winning his 15th cap. "I could see the ball coming, a gap opened up and I thought, 'There's a chance', but I wasn't sure I'd make it because I had 25 metres to go.

"It was an extraordinary try and a really good moment. I was swamped because of the boys jumping all over me. Rugby is not about being the biggest, strongest and fastest. It's about people who want it the most. It was certainly a highlight, but then the last couple of weeks have been the same. This group of players get the best out of me. They are such a lovely bunch, there's nothing I wouldn't do for them.

"The French are also unbeaten, but this is going to be another step up. They are always one of the most physical sides, with a strong scrum and line-out, and we're hoping to disrupt them.

"You can't read too much into their match with England. There was a lot of tension, a lot of nervous players. That was why it was very tight and there were a lot of mistakes. I don't think we'll be involved in a war of attrition. We play fast and loose, and traditionally France are the same.

"It could be a high-tempo affair. From losing games by narrow margins we've started to win some, but we're a young side that's still developing. Mike Ruddock is putting his own stamp on the team, and that takes time. It will be interesting to see what we can do a few years down the line."

A few years down the line is the World Cup in France, and last Thursday Ruddock selected five players, including Cockbain, to spend time with Wales's finest junior players. Cockbain, for a number of reasons, was all in favour of the innovation.

Although the dinner and auction on 2 March is a sell-out, sealed bids can be sent to the Toby Lloyd Cockbain Foundation, PO Box 4177, Cardiff CF14 8AF.


Brent Cockbain

Born: 15 November 1974 in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales.

Height: 6ft 8in. Weight: 18st 5lb.

Club/region: Neath-Swansea Ospreys.

International career: made debut for Wales against Romania at Wrexham in 2003. Fifteen caps in total, with one international try, against Italy this season.

Other: nickname is "Biscuit". Brother Matt, a flanker or lock, has played international rugby for Australia, winning 63 caps. Married to Kate, a Welsh nurse. Played for London Irish in 2000 before moving to Pontypridd and qualifying for Wales on residency. One season for the now-defunct Celtic Warriors regional side. A football fan, he supports Liverpool.