‘I support what he’s done 100 per cent’: Richard Cockerill backs Gregor Townsend over Finn Russell row

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Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill has offered his backing to Scotland counterpart Gregor Townsend. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson***

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’.

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“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. 

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The Grudge by Tom English
Stuart Bathgate
About Stuart Bathgate 844 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.


  1. The elephant in the room which Townsend studiously avoids addressing is that he and Finn disagree fundamentally about how the game should be played. It is not a disciplinary issue or about drinking . Townsend wants Russell to carry out his instructions to the letter and Russell wants to play wants in front of him

    • Russell can coach when he’s finished his playing days. Until then, if he wants to play for his homeland he should be more diplomatic in how he disagrees with tactics. Townsend is no mug, and has a bag more experience than Russell.

      Russell has thrown his toys out the pram. Maybe he thinks his ability deserves more wins.

      Scotland kicked just as much in the 2nd half of last years Twickenham as the first – yet his ‘argument’ suggested it was the wrong tactic. Maybe better execution was the reason for the reversal of scoreline.

      Russell is a great player, but he should simply shut up and accept that playing for your country is the highest accolade, it ain’t about the SRU, Townsend, or him.

  2. Good Article I dont think both incidents are related,I remember the Cockerell v Woodward issue,Woodward did the same thing to other player because he took it personally,this is the issue with Townsend, SRU and Russell which now appears to be out of control.
    Do the fans have to watch Scotland struggle in every 6 nations game as they struggled in the world cup over a personal issue between player and coach.
    Time for change.

  3. If I was advising Cockerill I would have said it would be better to keep your powder dry until he is offered the top job in about six weeks time. He could build a relationship with Finn afresh. I suspect his SRU employers forced his hand

  4. Great to hear thoughts from another respected coach. I do think that what has happened between Gregor and Finn has no relevance to the issues that exist in the SRU.
    We tend to jump on the bandwagon when things don’t go well, one bit of positivity from Saturday, I believe the starting pack was made up from home bred players ( apologies if I’m wrong). When did that last happen and good to see our system is not totally broken !! 🐻

    • If I was Cockerill I would have kept my powder dry until I was offered the top job in about six weeks time and left the door open to start afresh with Finn. However I suspect his SRU employers forced his hand.

  5. Assuming nothing major at play, think this could draw a line under it. No more words in press or in private. Give them both a break. Hastings the man in possession so easy call to pick Russell for bench on next game and see how it goes. Thats the window for Gregor. Love means never having to say your sorry. So let Finn just turn up and get on with it.

  6. 1. Cockerill was grizzled hooker not star man at 10; equivalent would be Johnny Wilkinson being convinced the coaches are doing things wrong. 2. The SRU/GT went public with the booze-hound narrative first, GT refused to bring him back into camp twice, only after this has Finn responded publicly in balanced article (not lucrative book), noting there is no other relationship. 3. Strange for Cockerill to say 100pc behind Gregor and at the same time say doesn’t know details and not taking sides (clearly makes no sense); Cockerill is paid by SRU. 4. Cockerill has sense of humour and listens to players, so would never have arisen (maybe he could help everyone by putting his hand in the air for the job). 5. Loving the Erasmus video doing the rounds, there’s a coach who said if SA had lost three on the trot he’d have tendered his resignation, here we are a World Cup down, continual failure to perform and talent being squandered.

    • Gordon
      Great comments never liked Cockerell as a player Leicester and England,What he has done for Edinburgh is top drawer could Cockerell and Hodge be candidates to replace Townsend or bring in an coach from the southern hemisphere they had Cotter experienced coach and Dodson sacked him in favor of Townsend ????

    • Where does it say GT stopped finn coming back into camp not even Finn has said that, everything I have read and listened to suggests that Finn had the choice to return to camp and refused

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