WHEN Richard Cockerill and Edinburgh Rugby parted company last month, a press release from Murrayfield said the decision had been made “by mutual consent”. The head coach spoke of new opportunities he wanted to pursue, and his former employers took just days to announce Mike Blair as his successor. It was, so it seemed, a divorce of convenience.
But no matter how harmonious and gentlemanly that parting of the ways may have been, the fact was that Edinburgh had been a troubled and turbulent camp for some time. The team’s form was indifferent, and while some of its on-field difficulties last season could be ascribed to pandemic-related issues, there were clearly serious difficulties in the relationship between Cockerill and the playing squad.
Addressing a press conference via Zoom last week, Grant Gilchrist became the first Edinburgh player to openly discuss the sequence of events that brought about the end of the former English international’s four-year reign. Insisting that Cockerill had done a lot of positive things for the team, Gilchrist made it clear that he was not interested in recriminations. But, while wording his answers diplomatically, the Scotland lock made it equally plain that change had been needed.
From the outside, it may have appeared that the players left at the end of the season with one coach at the helm then unwittingly returned for pre-season training to find another in his place. So the interview began with a question to Gilchrist about that process:
As a senior player, were you aware of what was going on in the background?
“We’re involved in a feedback process at the end of the season. We didn’t know what was going to be done with that – we weren’t involved in any kind of decision-making with that, but it was clear from the review process that we needed to change a few things, having under-performed.
“In professional sport that’s what happens if you’ve had a poor season. There was some feedback that we gave as players that we felt it was important to change. The union had their own review and feedback process and we are where we are now with a new coach.”
Did that feedback include a suggestion, at least from some players, that a new coach was needed?
“We didn’t want to delve into things that are not our job; that’s not our job to decide things like that. It was important as a playing group all the way through that we fed back on things that we felt needed to change and that were within our control, and we did that always in the right way.
“We spoke directly to Cocker as a head coach and we made sure as a player group that we didn’t want to be involved in anything political around suggesting these things. We all were giving feedback on how things needed to change, and sometimes it worked as well. We gave a lot of feedback on things that did work well, hence why we now sit here with a new coach.
“We’re talking about the foundations that have been set by Cocker in his time at the club and we obviously want to evolve from that strong foundation. We’ve had success: last year highlighted that we need to evolve, whether that was with Cocker or without Cocker. It’s turned out that it’s without, and we’re in a great position to evolve in certain areas.”
A lot of players were not on the same page as Cockerill. Which page were you on?
“As a player group we had a good grasp of what all the players felt. It was not a surprise to us. None of it was a surprise. We knew.
“We speak a lot as players – that’s normal at any club. We’re a tight-knit group: we were always as one as a player group – there were no factions with certain guys feeling one way and certain guys feeling differently. We were all pretty clear on what feedback we gave and certain things that needed to change and certain things that were fine.”
John Barclay has said he felt that Cockerill did not listen to players. What was your experience?
“I think my experience was different to that. There were certain things that Cockers wouldn’t budge on, but if that was the case we would keep having open dialogue with him.
“Certain things he was open to. Maybe a slight negative was that wasn’t across the board. We would push for more and more responsibility as players, which wasn’t always given.
“It was his style and it had merits, it had success. But it had to evolve, and when it didn’t, that’s where inevitably there became a change.”
What sort of thing were the players pushing for more responsibility to do – licence to change the game plan on the hoof, for example?
“Yeah, I think at times. A lot of it was just wanting to be able to . . . . It’s hard. As such a strong leader, he led on every area.
“In my area of the game, the lineout, I would keep pushing, but that’s not in everyone’s nature. So some people took a back seat and let Cockers lead on everything. As players you’ve got to be really involved in your area and in the whole game plan, and that’s maybe what was missing.”
So is it a relief to have a new head coach?
“I don’t think I would say a relief. After four years of one style it feels fresh and feels new, and that can be exciting. I think that has rejuvenated the playing group, specially some guys who were maybe feeling worse than others. Sometimes that fresh approach is needed and can breathe a new lease of life into guys.
“I think overall we’re in a good place now and I want to talk about the future of Edinburgh. Cocker has done a good job in setting us up. We weren’t able to evolve the culture and the game plan to a place where we could kick on, and I think that’s where Mike has come in, and we’re really excited by a former player, someone who’s got a respect for the work that’s been done and understands the value in what’s been done over the last four years – but also the things that have to be better.
“And that’s not any slight on Cockers, that’s just the fact that there’s a lot of things we need to do better having had a poor season. That balance of keeping those fundamentals but also bringing in a freedom, bringing in a confidence especially to the way we attack, is really exciting the boys. They’re lapping it up.
“The way we’ve trained over the last four or five weeks, that balance between the discipline that has been ingrained in us and that new freedom in certain areas is certainly something that’s really exciting and you can feel the buzz around the place.”
Is there a danger now that the players have too much power, or is it clear where Mike Blair draws the line?
“We’ve found that out already. There is no doubt he has got the respect of all the group. As a playing group we understand and respect the role that a coach plays compared to the role that a player plays. A player’s input is invaluable but the coach makes the decisions and you buy into it and that’s what this playing group did under Cockers and that’s what we’ll do under Mike.
“I was a young lad when Mike was here [as a player] and he was one of the leaders in the team then, so I’ve obviously known him for a long time and I’m really excited for him to get that opportunity as an Edinburgh man with a real identity for the club. Having a former player becoming head coach is, for me, really, really exciting. That motivation to do well…. I’m sure the whole club, we want to create an atmosphere in our new stadium and create a real buzz around the club and having a former player as head coach and a playing squad that are extremely motivated to do well – it’s an exciting time to be here.”
But is it a slightly weird dynamic having a former team-mate telling you what to do?
“That’s not a factor. I’ve been coached under Mike through the national team so we’ve established that. It’s good to have close relationships with coaches and we talk about being a tighter unit, not just player to player but right across the whole club and that’s something that Mike is passionate about and his character leads to that. It’s a very different relationship, coach to player, than previously so that’s something again that’s new. And as mentioned previously that’s something that can change the feel, even though the majority of training has been very similar. That freshness is something that can be a really good thing.”
Does Mike have a mean side to him?
“He’s not had to crack the whip too hard. In training he’s not a shouter, he’s not going to be the kind of guy who is berating people, but you certainly know what he expects from you at all times. Especially on the training pitch you can hear him constantly giving feedback to boys about good things, but also if this needs to be better or that needs to be better.
“It’s a different style than what we’re used to. But again, it’s fresh, it’s new, and somebody with the respect that Mike has doesn’t need to scream and shout to get the response that he wants. That’s a huge positive and it’s good to see the response of the players in the last few weeks.
“We spoke about wanting to keep the hard work ethic and the discipline that has been set and that’s not been questioned at all. A lot of those things are ingrained into us and it will be just as important as the season progresses that we keep all these things as well as evolving and getting better.”
Having joined the academy in 2009 then signed his first professional deal two years later under Michael Bradley, Gilchrist has seen coaches come and go. The final question to him was:
So you’ve been in this movie before?
“I hope this is the last time I go through a change in coach because it’s not nice, it’s not something anyone sets out to see, but it’s professional sport. It happens to players, it happens to coaches, and the most important thing is the club continues and the club gets better. Obviously you respect the people who have spent time in the jersey and spent time coaching and what they’ve implemented and what they’ve brought to the club and put into the club – the effort, the time, the expertise. But inevitably it moves on and it keeps rolling and that’s part and parcel of the game.”