Cockerill's brio undisturbed by outcast status

Former cornerstone of Leicester's front-row crew is dealing with life on sidelines

Members of the front row fraternity do not, as a rule, think too deeply about the meaning of life: it is difficult to imagine Jason Leonard whispering "I scrum, therefore I am" as he packs down for the umpteenth set-piece of an England Test match. Richard Cockerill, however, is quite the philosopher these days. As the author of the longest suicide note in red rose history, 170 pages of rollicking rugger-buggery that had Clive Woodward spluttering apoplectically over his morning muesli, Leicester's folk-hero hooker has developed an unusually acute sense of his own sporting mortality.

"Clive won't pick me for England again, I know that," Cockerill said this week. "There is a part of me that misses the whole international experience - the shirt, the excitement, the pride, the challenge - and another part that couldn't care less about the row over my book. My rugby isn't perfect at the moment: I'm not first choice for my club, let alone my country. But then, I can go out for a beer on the Friday night of an international weekend, a simple pleasure I was unable to enjoy for years. Various emotions are tugging away at me, but I think I've struck a good balance."

Balance? During his long stint as the central figure in Leicester's revered ABC triumvirate - the props, Graham Rowntree and Darren Garforth, were A and C respectively - Cockerill embodied any number of Bs: brave, brash, brazen, batty and belligerent would be among the more printable ones. Not "balanced", though; there was nothing remotely level-headed about the way he approached his trade. He was an all-or-nothing sort, a dedicated irritant who constructed an entire sporting strategy around his ability to wind up the opposition. He was quite happy to wear the devil's head if it meant sticking a pair of horns into some inflated All Black ego, and he milked the big time for all it was worth.

Then, in the space of four weeks last autumn, the wheels parted company with the Cockerill bandwagon and disappeared over the nearest cliff. On 22 October, Woodward named his side for the World Cup quarter-final with South Africa in Paris: Phil Greening would play at hooker, with Cockerill relegated to the bench. Two days later, England lost both their bearings and the courage of their convictions, and allowed a limited Springbok side to ease them out of the tournament. To his eternal frustration, Cockerill did not get a run.

Worse was to come. On 22 November, Cockerill's autobiography, In Your Face, was published. Woodward took it badly, not simply because his quirky man-management style had been criticised in print, but because he had expressly warned his players against talking out of school. During a subsequent phone conversation between the two men, the coach bluntly informed Cockerill that it was a case of "Adios, amigo".

Since when, there have been few sightings of the squat, sturdy force of nature who, for two-and-a-half seasons, had symbolised English rugby's bulldog spirit. (It was Cockerill's ugly mug that dominated the red rose army's pre-World Cup poster campaign, stamped with the slogan: "Blood, sweat and beers"). He has started only three senior Leicester matches in five months; indeed, he has played more games for the second-string, whom he has captained regularly of late. This afternoon, he is on the bench for the big Premiership rumble with London Irish; Dorian West, who won two England caps to Cockerill's 23, is the main man.

"I've had my knock-backs before, and I'll have them again," he shrugged. "It's just that this time, I've fallen from a greater height. But what do you do? Put your head between your legs and sulk? Pack your bags and go elsewhere? That's not me, thank God. I've been at Leicester eight years now, and I've made 200 senior appearances. I'm happy here. I think I should be the first-team hooker, obviously, but I'm not about to push off in a strop because Dorian is wearing my shirt. This season is pretty much a write-off, but I'll stay and fight for my place. After all, it's not a bad life, pro rugby. Even when it's crappy, it's good."

But it could have been different, surely. Might not Cockerill have saved himself a heap of trouble by spiking that damned book of his at the proof-reading stage and staying on the right side of the Twickenham hierarchy. "Regrets? Yes and no," he said. "In the cold light of day I suppose I could have put one or two things differently, but there wasn't a lot in the book that people weren't already thinking. I knew I was on thin ice right from the start, but I'd been paid good money to write a warts-and-all book and to be fair, most of the warts were mine. I'm not saying I'm any more honest than the next bloke, but what you see with me is what you get."

Cockerill the author had plenty of positive things to say about the Woodward regime - "Clive's a genuine bloke and a real team guy," he wrote at one point - but he was highly critical of the coach's interest in, or obsession with, communication by e-mail; notoriously, he described the habit of announcing team selections via cyber-space as "a bit gutless". Four months down the road, Cockerill is sticking to his guns. "I still say that players prefer to be told things to their faces," he insisted. "True, Clive stood up in front of the World Cup squad and asked them if they had any objections to his communicating by e-mail. No one said a word. But in reality, who was going to break ranks in a team meeting?"

At the same time, Cockerill accepts that his form during and after the World Cup was a notch or two down. "I'd been playing non-stop for four years and fatigue had set in," he explained. "I'm not beefing about it; it was my decision to go on the southern hemisphere tour in '98 when a lot of other blokes took the opportunity to stay at home and rest up for a few weeks. But tiredness was definitely a factor. Also, I think the World Cup squad as a whole grew stale. We'd spent so much time together before the tournament that when we got into the big stuff, the edge had started to go. The intensity of the international environment wears you down after a while; you get so many things thrown at you, so much grief from outside.

"I'm much fitter and healthier now, though, and I'm enjoying myself. Let's face it, I was never good enough to be a 60-cap international; I went a long way on passion and spirit, I won 20-odd caps for my country and I played against the best sides in the world. If I'm holding the shitty end of the stick for the moment, then I'll live with it. I'm 29, I have five good years left in me and I've a lot still to offer. No, I haven't thought about life after rugby. I'll keep playing and playing, and as long as Leicester want me, I'll do my playing here."

An hour previously, Cockerill had been sweating buckets on the practice pitch at Oval Park, the Tigers' base on the outskirts of Oadby. Aware that he had lost out on selection, he had nevertheless trained his socks off, tearing around the paddock like a teenager, barking and yelling and cajoling in time-honoured fashion. Indeed, he was the last man off the field, having put in a few extra sprints after line-out drill. In Woodward's view, he is past tense. But one of these fine days, possibly on the high veldt of South Africa this June, England will find themselves in need of some of the qualities Cockerill gave them. When the going gets really tough, the little B of Welford Road will take some replacing.

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