As recently as Christmas Eve Richard Cockerill was still convinced there would be a happy end to Leicester’s season. “I’m not sure it’s all doom and gloom,” he said, fixing his inquisitors with his trademark piercing stare. “We’re fifth at the halfway stage of the season and I’d back ourselves to be in the play-offs.” His latter prediction may yet come true but Cockerill will not be the coach who makes it happen.
It is always slightly depressing when a loyal club servant reaches the end of the road. Like dogs and their owners, rugby clubs and their coaches start to reflect each other over time and the Tigers may miss the faithful, boisterous “Cockers” more than they realise. It is almost exactly 25 years since the former England hooker first arrived at Welford Road as a player and barring a two-year stint with Montferrand in France, he has been loyal to a fault.
If nothing else a Cockerill team would always be feisty, tough to beat at home and on their best days, capable of seeing off anyone. The problem for Cockerill, in the end, was that Leicester have been hitting those high spots sporadically. It is 15 years since they won the European Cup and, assuming they draw another blank in this season’s Premiership, they will have won the domestic title once in their past seven attempts. For a side with Leicester’s trophy-laden heritage, that is simply not good enough.
Anyone who witnessed the Tigers’ heavy defeats at Glasgow, Munster and Exeter this season could also hardly fail to notice the grim, thousand-yard stares of the club’s hierarchy at every final whistle. These are men who seriously hate losing, particularly against teams who have prospered lately while they have been treading water. No club in Europe has higher expectations and the expert manner in which a head coach like Eddie Jones has transformed England’s fortunes inside 12 months will also have hardened attitudes. Leicester is a wonderful location to coach when the home team win but it is an unforgiving place when results go awry.
In that regard Cockerill did well to survive for the amount of time he did. Neither Marcello Loffreda or Heyneke Meyer lasted long, unable to transform a setup that, for years, was allergic to change. Cockerill admitted as much to the Guardian last April: “Two or three years ago that probably was my mentality … this is what we do, this is how we do it and if you don’t fit in, tough.” The clannishness that made Leicester unbeatable in their heyday had started to become their achilles heel.
In fairness to Cockerill, he ceased to be a lucky general some time ago. The injury list has been grim, with high‑profile overseas signings Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen, and the talismanic Manu Tuilagi, among the most obvious casualties. Other English sides, notably Saracens, Wasps and Bath, have been splashing more cash and Tigers have won only one knockout match at the sharp end of Europe since the summer of 2009.
The board had already moved to remedy that situation by recruiting the more creative-minded Aaron Mauger but that marriage, promising on paper, has not worked out as hoped. There have been mutterings of mixed messages, not helped by the fact that a suspiciously high number of players have left Welford Road to prosper elsewhere. Cockerill can be great company but not every former employee posts him a Christmas card.
What happens next will be pruriently fascinating. Mauger has been placed in interim charge but what if results do not pick up swiftly? Leicester face Wasps in Coventry this Sunday and, with traditional Midlands’ certainties suddenly null and void, there must be at least a possibility of another flogging. European qualification feels highly unlikely and the Six Nations period will rob the club of key England men such as Dan Cole and Ben Youngs.
Maybe that is why the board acted slightly quicker than expected in parting company with Cockerill, in an attempt to buy everyone else a bit more time and avert total meltdown. Ironically, Leicester performed decently in several respects against Saracens, exhibiting no shortage of heart and effort, but there is little doubt they need an injection of fresh inspiration from somewhere.
It makes the club’s latest managerial rejig crucial: do they look abroad as Munster have successfully done with Rassie Erasmus or do they revert togot for another of their own? Paul Gustard, Graham Rowntree, Dean Richards, John Wells, Martin Johnson, Clive Woodward … the list of former local heroes with experience of top-level coaching is lengthy. While half of the above will not be remotely interested, it is a indication of the times that all options will be painstakingly sifted. Cockerill’s immediate coaching future is uncertain – Northampton anyone? – but the Tigers’ next move is even harder to predict.