Brent Cockbain: The eloquent enforcer plays catch-up for club and adopted country

After suspension and a 10-month lay-off the Wales and Ospreys lock tells James Corrigan about his return to battle
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The Independent Online

It is with a Welsh heart that Brent Cockbain will draw on the grudges of history before tearing into the cross-border confrontation with Bristol this evening looking for the win that will take the Ospreys into the semi-finals of the EDF Energy Cup. Excuse the towering lock, though, if his bleary eyes are those of an Australian who has stayed up for a certain cricket match.

For Cockbain is red in every corner of his international being, except the baggy green of his dreams. He admitted as much earlier this week in the Cardiff home he shares with his Welsh family; his wife, Kate, and baby daughter, Pippa Carys.

"Yeah, it's one of the things I haven't been able to shake off," he said, in the broad Queensland lilt that instantly gives away another. "Cricket's so ingrained in the Australian psyche that it's with you forever. So too right, I'm rooting for the boys to win back the Ashes. Cricket's almost a religion where I'm from. A bit like rugby here, I suppose."

The faith in Wales is wavering somewhat. Seven days after the Millennium mauling and the Principality continues to suffer its usual comedown brought on by the mainlining of euphoric expectation. Cockbain is as much to blame as anyone, declaring in his pre-match BBC internet column: "We will beat the All Blacks 35-32! How's that for a prediction?" Not very accurate as it happened, although the exclamation mark was in the right place.

"We really did talk ourselves up," confessed Cockbain. "But there was a real belief and we thought we had good reason for it. But then New Zealand turned our little mistakes into massive ones and that was that. They're the better team, sure, but not 35 points better. It was so disappointing to look at that scoreline."

Where Cockbain was looking from did not ease the discomfort. A windswept Thomond Park is no place to be searching for solace, especially when you are on an uncushioned bench at the Limerick bearpit and all around you the men of Munster are screaming blue murder. The reason the British Lion was an Osprey sub last Saturday evening was down to a ban for stamping all over Sale's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe in the European Cup last month. "It was an unfortunate situation that sometimes occurs in this line of work," is his judgement.

In fairness, they have not occurred at all regularly for Cockbain and certainly not as often as his introduction to the rugby world at large would have had it. When Steve Hansen, the then Wales coach, plucked him out of the middle of the Pontypridd pack - "obscurity" does not begin to describe it - he waved Cockbain's three-year residency ticket around like a trump card. "This man is not called 'Disaster' for nothing," said the New Zealander with a smirk, as the press corps nervously eyed the 6ft 8in frame. "He's all shoulders, knees and elbows who will scare out the contents of your bowels. He is an enforcer. He does the dirty work. That's what he is." In the three years since, Wales have discovered he is so much more.

Tragically, they were given the full image of the family man when the Cockbains lost their first-born to a rare brain tumour two years ago. Toby was just 13 months old and the manner in which the pair handled their grief publicly and set about raising awareness of child cancer through the Toby Lloyd Cockbain Foundation captured a nation's heart. The more Cockbain spoke, the more his adopted country came to realise his eloquence, so much so that now he is often the first player the local media turns to whenever a controversy arises. In Welsh rugby, of course, that means most months.

Inevitably, this last week has been dominated by "Hakagate" and Cockbain is keen to scotch one myth that may or may not be at the centre of the Welsh Rugby Union's defence for the farce that ended with the visitors slapping their thighs in the dressing room. "I can't see that the All Blacks gain a psychological edge whenever or wherever they do the haka," said the 32-year-old. "I've played against them three times now and I've found that the haka is a good time to size them up. You're standing there, you've watched Tana Umaga play dozen of times on telly, imagined that he's 10ft tall and suddenly you're thinking, 'well he doesn't look that big over there now'. No, there's real factors for their dominance to focus on."

Cockbain would list them as "talent, development, conditioning" and concedes that after the first, Wales are a long way behind. As the majority of the battered Welsh boys went straight back to their regions for this weekend's lesser competition, the All Blacks returned home for a four-month break in which they will concentrate solely on conditioning. The contrast is as obvious as it is damning.

"It is difficult competing with a side like that when they do play fewer games at a higher standard and spend more time getting themselves physically ready," said Cockbain. "In the northern hemisphere the Irish are the ones doing most of that and the benefits are there to see. They're finding a balance, but that's easier said than done. It's understandable that the money men want their money's worth, so they just slip in an extra international here, an extra fixture there or indeed an extra tournament like this EDF Cup. And the players are their own worst enemy because they always want to play, like I do, week in, week out. Maybe it will come down to players and officials doing what doesn't necessarily come naturally to them."

Cockbain believes this must apply not just in terms of game-time, but also in what he resists calling "gamesmanship in the game time". When it comes to the All Blacks' renowned dark arts, Cockbain is very much in the school of "if they don't beep 'em, join 'em". "People use the 'cheating' word a lot now with New Zealand, but to my mind it's only illegal if they get caught," he said. "Union is like most things in life in that there's no black and white areas - it's all grey.

"You could analyse any ruck, maul or line-out in isolation and give three or four penalties either way. So it's almost impossible for the referee and if he sees the All Blacks driving forward it's very difficult for him to judge whether they're on their knees or not. Now if there's just one guy going in at the side, he is going to get pinged. So what they are is more savvy, doing it in numbers and good luck to them. Now whether they get a better rub of the green with the refs or not, I'm not sure. It has been suggested they do, because they are such a good side and wield such an influence on the whole game..."

Cockbain leaves the question hanging; he has neither the inclination nor the time to answer it. After the ban that came on top of a 10-month lay-off with a detached hamstring, Cockbain is playing a rather desperate game of catch-up. "These next nine weeks before the Six Nations are so important because you don't want to be missing that bus that could take you all the way to the World Cup," said Cockbain, whose elder brother, Matt, lifted that Webb Ellis Trophy with Australia in 1999. "But never mind Wales, it's hard enough to get in the Ospreys side. There's great front-rowers in 'The Hairbears' [Adam and Duncan Jones], two or three very good hookers, loads of second rowers, hundreds of back-rowers, plenty of centres ... It's everywhere you look. It's depth galore and with a great new stadium [the Liberty] and wonderful training facilities there really are no excuses anymore.

"Historically, none of the Welsh teams have done that well in Europe - although I do appreciate that Llanelli have had a measure of success - and it is time one of the regions put their hand up, perhaps by winning the EDF and certainly with a Heineken Cup run. Wales needs to see that. And yes, with our resources a lot of the onus is probably on us."

Cockbain seems confident they can handle it, not least because of all the swagger that Justin Marshall, the former All Black, has brought at scrum-half. "You need strong characters like him to make it all tick," said Cockbain. "He's cocky all right, but he's also assured. It's like these past few days, he hasn't taken the piss out of the Welsh boys about the result at all. It's like he knows New Zealand are that good, so what's the surprise, where's the need to say anything? It's a bit like Australia, I guess, and the Ashes."

Cockbain laughs. Once an Aussie, always an Aussie. Even if he is now a Welshman.

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