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Tigers' blood runs deep for unlikely leader Cockerill

Two seasons ago last December, Richard Cockerill's estimable battle against the hot-headedness that had enraged so many front-row opponents down the years encountered another disciplinary rumble strip.

Handed a four-week ban for mouthing off at match officials, the shaven-headed, then active volcano gathered his players together after training to disseminate the bad tidings.

"Sorry fellahs," he began, "but I won't be with you on match days until the New Year and ... " He couldn't finish the sentence. His players had begun celebrating and whooping as if they had just lifted the Heineken Cup trophy.

In a moment, this encapsulated Leicester Tigers as an entity and club veteran Cockerill as its epitome. Democracy, not autocracy, rules. So, too, equality, whether one is a multi-award winning Lion or a local academy graduate.

Cockerill's arrival as the leader of one of Europe's leading powerhouses is nothing short of sensational for those who knew him in his previous guise as a gnarled hooker; former Irish opponents we have spoken to declared their utter distaste for his nefarious deeds on the field.

Indeed, the highlight of his international career arguably remains his joust, during the haka, with counterpart Norm Hewitt at Old Trafford in 1997, which continued outside a Dunedin drinking den the following summer, when 'Cocky' was left reeling with a black eye after coming to blows inside and outside a taxi.

Unsurprisingly, his autobiography was entitled 'In Your Face' wherein slagging off Clive Woodward for announcing selection decisions by email understandably enough curtailed his international career.

"I still miss the old days," is Cockerill's steadfast defiance of his past. "I do find the modern game a little sterile. When I started playing, if an upstart hooker tried to strike for your ball, you'd give him a nudge with your fist and say, 'Do that again and you'll get another one.'

"These days that process of initiation has disappeared, because the 18-year-old can't be physically intimidated. You can't belt them anymore. Front-five forwards used to learn those lessons and it made for more rounded players."

Even this week, Neil Francis spoke on television about how he was hearing a little too much about Cockerill this week and hoped "he'd just shut up at this stage."

But how has such an erstwhile egocentric eccentric transformed himself into a (relatively) benign leader of men? An accidental selection, he was third or fourth choice when picked as assistant coach in 2004.

After Leicester's ill-judged foray into overseas names -- Heyneke Meyer, Marcelo Loffreda -- Cockerill's emergency stint as a caretaker in 2008-09, subsequently steering the side to a Premiership title, solved a pressing problem and demonstrated to the board of old Tigers players that the answer lay under their noses all along.

"It's a testament to him how he's adapted his style as a rugby person to coaching," says one of his successors in the No 2 jersey, George Chuter.

"It's a common joke on the after-dinner circuit, 'Cockers' becoming our coach. Because he never had a the reputation of a clear-thinking, logical person. But he knows the club better than anyone. He played here in the most successful era of the club, he respects the history and he doesn't try to change the club's morals. And he's brought that to a younger generation.


"He's a lot calmer than he was, even a couple of years ago he used to still blow his top. He's learned all this on the job. Slowly but surely, he's reined all that in and his record proves he's been a success."

Chuter's testimony is significant -- imagine an Irish player speaking so candidly about their current head coach? Loyalty need not always be illustrated via blithe blandishments. Last season, Cockerill led his side to another Premiership title after a thrilling play-off success against Saracens. He has allowed senior players responsibility on the field, married to the side's traditional renown for forward play.

Two years ago, he came up short in a Heineken Cup final against tomorrow's quarter-final opponents in Edinburgh; his club's supporters would argue that the previous week's title-winning efforts may have enervated their ardour. This week offers the chance for revenge.

"Leicester have done some great things in the past, but I would say this would be quite significant," Cockerill (left) opined this week.

And beyond the confines of his dressing-room, the Englishman will care not a whit what anyone cares to think of him. The solidarity within the dressing-room is all that counts.

As he says himself of his critics: "If they want to call me an a**e, I'd rather they call me an a**e to my face than sit at home thinking about it."

Irish Independent