Once upon a time in his playing days, Richard Cockerill was ejected from the England squad by Clive Woodward, never to return; guilty by implication of being among those described by Woodward as "energy sappers". Now Cockerill is Leicester Tigers' director of rugby, halfway through a season that could deliver his and the club's third straight Premiership title. He admits he has had to battle to control his temper and turn his players' lights on, not off. And Woodward? He is on a Tigers board beaming at Cockerill's success.
Cockerill will be in his usual seat in the Welford Road grandstand this afternoon when Perpignan visit Leicester in a Heineken Cup pool match. He may slap the desk in front of him, or shout "knock on!" or "come on!" The press sitting nearby may smile or raise an eyebrow. "Typical Cockers," they may say. On occasions he has gone too far, and this time last year was serving a matchday ban for lambasting referees. Superficially, he is unchanged from the hooker who snarlingly confronted Norm Hewitt during an All Black haka in 1997 (right), or lambasted Woodward's methods in an autobiography In Your Face: A Rugby Odyssey. So is that player of old the same as the coach or – in the rugby jargon – the "DOR?"
"I've always tried to be me, and I'm quite pugnacious and quite competitive and I'll do whatever it takes to win, in a sporting context," Cockerill says. "Sometimes my behaviour has been less than ideal. You go away from a game thinking 'Christ, I've got to just calm down a bit, that was ridiculous'. And I've tempered it as time has gone on. I realised it wasn't about getting me ready for the game, it was about getting the players ready."
He says he would be a Leicester supporter if he wasn't working there. Born in Rugby, he manned the Tigers' front row (aka the ABC Club) for a decade before a couple of twilight years at Montferrand. Yet there was no grand plan to come back; no brilliantly conceived CV or coaching pathway.
In 2004, as "third or fourth choice behind people who didn't want to do it", he became the assistant coach to John Wells, taking the forwards while Pat Howard did the backs. Onwards through Howard's stint as head coach, and the subsequent comings and premature goings of Marcelo Loffreda, an Argentinian, and Heyneke Meyer, a South African, Cockerill oscillated between learner and firefighter. He was appointed head coach in April 2009, a month before Leicester won the Premiership by defeating London Irish. They retained the title last May in a classic final against Brendan Venter's Saracens.
"I want us to be good," says Cockerill. "It's not about money or being famous or what car you drive. It has always been about the kudos of being the best." He talks about needing to pay the bills and the mortgage, but he doesn't envy football managers for "the amount of flak they get". He will not critique Venter's mickey-taking television interview last weekend, or criticise Northampton's prop Euan Murray for refusing to play on Sundays. "My mother-in-law's a vicar," Cockerill says. "I'm very simple. The players need to turn up on time, wearing their kit and ready to play."
What is clear is that while Cockerill insists "circumstances, not ambition" brought him to this point, he is a good fit for the Leicester continuum: strong-scrummaging, hard-eyed forwards, good talent scouts and regular trophies attracting those who wish to win trophies. With their £18.5million turnover, they are in a minority of clubs who would like the salary cap increased. "I don't want more salary cap to buy rock stars," says Cockerill. "I want to protect the guys we've got." Bath's wooing of the flanker Tom Croft – one of nine England players at Welford Road – was rebuffed by a recently extended contract. As for France's ever-growing spending power, Cockerill's argument on why his stars should stay put could stand as a Tigers mission statement. He feels it deeply, madly, truly. Perpignan and their confrères can look away now. "People can try and copy us, to try and buy our DNA," Cockerill says. "You cannot nick what we have, because you have to be in our environment to have it. I know the systems in France up to a point, because I've played there, and they're not as good for your rugby-playing development. Certainly for the Anglo-Saxons the best place to be is in England because it is more professional and it suits the mentality. Certainly the Leicester players and the Leicester club epitomise that.
"Foreign players have come here and become world renowned on the back of being in our environment. Julien Dupuy came here as Biarritz's third-choice scrum-half and went away as France's first choice. Now he's not here, he's not as good a player. Benjamin Kayser came here as a second-choice player at Stade Français and went away as first choice for France. Now he's not here and has dropped off that pecking order. Whether the French bubble will burst, we'll see. Brive have some issues. Stade Français are not as strong in the marketplace as they were. I don't know how wealthy the Toulon owner is, or the Racing Métro owner is. Will they get bored in a couple of years? Leicester will be here in another hundred years. Not many clubs would have survived the coaches' upheaval we've had and still got to finals."
His encouragement to his players to be open with their opinions – "if they want to call me an arse, I'd rather they call me an arse to my face than sit at home thinking about it" – stems from his frustration at how former coaches including Dean Richards handled selection. "We normally name the team on Tuesday and I call it 'shit day Tuesday'," says Cockerill. "You're going round saying 'can I have a word?'" Socialising is different. Last Thursday, it was his 40th birthday. "A few drinks in the pub" was the plan. The players weren't invited.