RICHARD Cockerill has given his backing to Gregor Townsend over the Finn Russell affair, insisting that the Scotland coach is entirely right to demand that the stand-off agree to abide by team values before returning to the squad. The Edinburgh coach cited an example from his own playing days to back up his argument that individuals have to accept internal discipline or face the consequences, and said he dealt with protocols on behaviour within his own squad just as Townsend was doing.
“For me, Gregor has no choice but to do what he’s done,” Cockerill said yesterday (Tuesday). “Players can’t run the team: coaches run the team. It’s as simple as that.
“From my own experience and my own opinion, Gregor has done exactly what he should have done. Sometimes you have to flex your muscle and put a stake down: ‘This is what we do, this is how we operate. Sorry, whoever doesn’t want to operate within that, then hard lines’.
“And if you want to come back into the environment, as Gregor said, and you want to be part of it, great. But until that happens, then step away.”
Cockerill did not exactly step away from England in his playing days, but was excluded from the squad after publicly criticising the then coach, Clive Woodward. He was perhaps too proud then to offer the apology that was the condition for returning to the fold, but 20 years down the line he is convinced that the coach was right and he was wrong.
“In ‘99 I wrote a book where I criticised Clive Woodward,” he explained. “He dropped me and never picked me again. If I had my time again I’d do something very different. As a coach, now I sit in his shoes, what he did was exactly right.
“I never played for England ever again, he won the World Cup and I watched it on telly. That’s a choice I made. He wanted me to apologise, I refused, and we went on our different ways.
“What I should have done was have those conversations in private. That’s where it should probably stay.
“That was slightly different to Finn, but similar consequences. Since ‘99, never been to an England training camp. ‘That’s your choice, sit over there, and we’ll get on with what we’re doing.’ Act in haste and repent at leisure.
“In the very, very short term, it [the omission of Russell] may be slightly detrimental to the team performance,” the coach continued. “Long-term, culturally, it will be of huge benefit to Scottish rugby.
“And Finn’s a good man, he’s a very good player, but so are the other 35 lads in camp. I don’t know the details, I don’t want to pick sides, because that’s not my job, but I know as a coach sometimes you have to stand your ground. Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions.
“Gregor wouldn’t want him not to play. Gregor would love him to play, I’m sure. I haven’t had the conversation, but I want to watch him play, the public want to watch him play. But the culture and the team dynamic comes first. We’re all part of that.
“Everybody is a different personality, but there are certain guidelines. For me, timekeeping, dress code, work ethic are non-negotiables, you all have to have that. If there are boundaries around certain things because you’ve all agreed it, you have to go with it.
“I’ll give you an example with us last year. We played Kings away and lost and I stopped everyone going out that night. No one went out for a beer, no one socialised, because we didn’t deserve a beer because we’d just lost the game to Kings away.
“So what’s the message we’re sending if we go there, play poorly, lose to Kings away who only won two games that season, but it’s OK for the boys to go out and enjoy themselves? Actually, you earn that.
“That’s my discretion, I’m in charge, I’ll make that decision. You cross the line and be very careful, because I’ll deal with it, that’s just how it is.
“I get it that there’ll be criticism for Gregor, because people want to see their favourite player but he has no choice, he’s done exactly the right thing, it’s exactly what I would do and I support what he’s done 100 per cent.
Old pals act
“I did a charity dinner on Friday and Martin Johnson was there and he was dead right when he said Finn’s almost punishing himself because he’d love to play in that game on Saturday. Everybody is suffering in this, there are no winners in this argument.
“Let’s hope that once the dust settles, everybody sees a bit of sense and we can get back to it. But in my opinion, that’s got to be the player’s decision, Gregor can’t change the environment for one player. I wouldn’t. If someone doesn’t want to be there, that’s their choice. They don’t have to play for Scotland, they don’t have to play for England. You go there because you choose to go there so I think what Finn did was his own choice.
“Do you want to tell me how we operate as a squad? You can ask my players, they don’t decide how we operate. There are parts where players have input, but the rules and who enforces them, it’s the coach.”
Asked if he would have changed anything in the way he has dealt with similar issues of player indiscipline at Edinburgh, Cockerill insisted he would not. “No. Because, for example, with Magnus Bradbury, and it’s a well-documented episode, he accepted the punishment, I told him what I thought, I decided what to do because that was the right thing to do and he accepted that. And so we’ve moved on and work together and have a good relationship. He was man enough to say he got it wrong: ‘I’m really sorry’. We’ve all been there.
“I’m sure Gregor doesn’t want to do it, I don’t want to have to discipline players but there is a line. Players are like your kids – if you say ‘if you do that one more time’ but never do it, they always do it. Until you go: ‘no’.”
Meanwhile, Edinburgh are back in PRO14 action on Saturday when they visit Scarlets in what will be their first match since mid-January. Nick Haining, WP Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Matt Scott and Henry Pyrgos have all been released from the Scotland squad for this Six Nations fallow week, but the other forwards along with Blair Kinghorn have been retained by Townsend. Darcy Graham is also expected to train with the national squad for part of this week as he continues his return from the injury which ruled him out of the first two rounds of the Championship.