Richard Cockerill delivers brutal assessment of Scottish player pathway

"If you’re not very good at your job, you don’t leave. They’ll just move you somewhere else."

Richard Cockerill its back in Scotland this week to coach the Black Lion team from Georgia in a behind-closed-doors friendly against a combined Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors 'A' team. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Richard Cockerill its back in Scotland this week to coach the Black Lion team from Georgia in a behind-closed-doors friendly against a combined Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors 'A' team. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

FORMER Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill has delivered a brutal assessment of the Scottish male player pathway in an interview with The Times and The Daily Mail newspapers.

Speaking ahead of this afternoon’s behind-closed-doors friendly match for his current team, Black Lion from Georgia, against a combined Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors A team at Hive Stadium, the ex-England hooker condemned Scotland to continue making the same mistakes as the past unless there is an overhaul of personnel and attitude inside the Scottish Rugby Union performance department.

“The biggest thing I think about the [Scottish Rugby] Union is, if you’re not very good at your job, you don’t leave. They’ll just move you somewhere else,” said Cockerill, who has also had coaching spells with Leicester Tigers, Toulon, England and Montpellier, and who now coaches the Georgia national team alongside Black Lion.


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“A lot of the young players in Scotland just physically aren’t capable,” he continued. “When I arrived in Edinburgh in 2017, I felt a lot of our players in the youth system were physically underdeveloped. The people who were in charge of those programmes back in 2017, who I didn’t believe were good enough, are still there now.

“How can you change anything if nothing ever changes? That’s the reality”

Cockerill’s spell coaching in Scotland initially triggered an impressive upturn in fortunes for the underperforming capital outfit, but he was hurriedly ousted four years later, in July 2021, amid widespread tittle-tattle about player unrest with his dictatorial style, limited game strategy and lack of diplomacy.

“I coached seven games in Montpellier. I won one of them and got the sack,” he said. “Scotland got relegated from the Under-20s World Cup. They lost to Uruguay. Are you telling me Uruguay have a better youth system than Scotland?

“If you don’t change anything, nothing will change. Do you know what I mean? There’s no direction in terms of actually changing anything. If the same people are kept in place, running the same programme that clearly isn’t producing results, why will anything change?

“I joined Edinburgh in 2017 and the two best tightheads [in Scotland] were Zander Fagerson and WP Nel. That’s still the case now seven years later,” he added. “Where’s the next young kid? That’s a concern. Italy are getting stronger and Georgia are getting stronger, I’ll make sure of that.

“When this generation of Scotland players slowly starts to fall off the edge of the cliff, who’s going to take over?”

Turning his focus back to his current day job, Cockerill highlighted some of the reasons why Scotland should be very wary of falling behind the Eastern Europeans in the international rugby food-chain.

“Tbilisi is a vibrant place, a great city. The weather’s good, the food’s good, the lifestyle, the wine … all the things that people love about life, they’re all there,” he reflected. “That’s another reason for us to have opportunities. There’s a 60,000-capacity stadium in Tbilisi — bring Ireland, bring England to play Georgia and it would be one hell of a weekend. The affinity the national team and Black Lion guys have for each other is strong. I’ve never coached a team with players that have such genuine love and spirit for each other.”

In fairness, a number of people at the top of Scottish Rugby have been moved on recently as the organisation looks to turnaround the crippling £10.5m loss suffered in the last financial year under the all-powerful previous Chief Executive Mark Dodson. 

The governing body is currently recruiting a new performance director to replace Jim Mallinder, who was initially appointed in August 2019 but struggled to make a meaningful impact before his imminent departure was announced las December. However, an appointment won’t be made until the next Chief Executive has his or her feet under the table, with Scottish Rugby Chairman John McGuigan stating at the start of April that he hoped that this position would be filled by either the end of this month or the start of May.

Meanwhile, an update of the ongoing Male Performance Pathway Review was issued back in February to coincide with the announcement that Super Series was being disbanded, with an increased focus on academies and central control of players the main takeaways from that presentation. However, realistically, there won’t be any real strategy in place, with nuts and bolts attached, until the new performance director has not only been appointed but been given a chance to fully assess the current set-up then come up with a plan of their own (which they can be measured against). This won’t happen overnight and time is not on Scottish rugby’s side because its rivals in both tier one and tier two aren’t resting on their laurels.

Black Lion will also play Leicester Tigers in a friendly at Welford Road on 3rd May.


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About David Barnes 3991 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

51 Comments

  1. I don’t want to take away from the general thrust of Cockerill’s argument, but it struck me that it was quite general today. Since he arrived in 2017, Scottish Rugby has developed the following XV through its academy programme –

    O Smith; H Paterson, M Currie, S McDowall, K Rowe; R Thompson, J Dobie;
    M Jones, G Stewart, M Walker, C Henderson, J Hodgson, L Crosbie, M Fagerson, R Darge

    – no doubt it is not the best XV developed globally in the time, but nor is it the worst.

    On the specific points of failure to develop players to challenge Zander and WP for the tight head berth, I’ve had a look at tight heads in the academy system since 2017
    Dan Winning
    Euan McLaren
    Adam Nicol
    Mak Wilson
    Dan Gamble
    Murphy Walker
    Cole Lamberton]
    Gregor Scougall
    Moby Ogunluja

    How many of those have had long term injuries (sometimes season length) to cope with?
    Is that the problem?
    I agree that at one point McLaren and Gamble looked top prospects, and either might yet make it at professional level – I would love to see that – but hopefully there is analysis why they, among others, who promised much at Academy level have not quite made it yet, and what can be refined to improve outcomes.
    We have 3 excellent tight heads in the academy just now in Norrie, Deans and Ollie Blyth Lafferty. Hopefully at least 2 of them make it to the top level.

  2. Glasgow and Edinburgh “A” sides playing in South Africa for game time? Insane!
    Why not play them in the prem next season as fully functioning team. Plenty of game time. Or is it that the so called elite players might be shown up be players that were unjustly overlooked their whole careers by the system that has failed Scottish rugby. Let them play and see who comes out top. Competition MAKES better players. More teams playing in the Premier gives more opportunities for game time. Or is the SRU frightened that the elites might get relegated. Let’s see where the cards fall.

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  3. Still, like asylum-seekers desperately scrambling for a place on a death-trap, in its ongoing search for something positive, the SRU continues to make every attempt to reach out from the EH12 gravy-train for new, increasingly cack-handed ways to shoot itself in the foot.

  4. Scotland is a poor nation. Our pool of private educated players is arguably higher than Ireland but I’ve met many that play at uni and never further.

    We can’t afford to eat enough to bulk up. I live in a deprived area and from when I was a boy no one knew anything about rugby. Let alone got to play it. Cost of living crisis will hit us harder. ‘green’ initiatives will add the boot into Scotland’s rugby status as everything gets even more expensive and less meat available (it’s already being discussed).

    Any positive outcomes are the best part of 10yrs away and will need real vision, pragmatic approach and expected outcomes or it will fail.

    The new era of Scotland only fans won’t last that long, further adding financial pressure through loss of receipts.

    The future is bleaker than you think.

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  5. Brutal, but not wrong….. the really worrying thing is that we haven’t hit the gap in resource yet, and the time it will take to fix…

  6. A certain Mr Gemmell will be cringing if he reads this .
    One of many that seem to be unaccountable with their failures

  7. So the 10yr plan was to be A games
    Wonder why there’s no coverage of the result
    Oh 38.0
    It’s going to be a shambles

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    • It was played in secret .
      Why ?
      This is the future players .so what is it cloak & dagger stuff .

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  8. So our pathway is shot. We all agree and plenty of negative comments. Sadly however I don’t see anyone putting forward constructive ideas to change it which is what we need. Fire those not performing yes but what comes after? We need to study NZ, France and particularly Italy and Ireland and really learn and soon from what they have done. It also needs to be radical from a very young age how do we sell the rugby positives to parents to get more 5, 6 and 7 year olds playing/ How do we get them the facilities coaching etc to do so and to really enjoy it? We also need to make the pathway not just better at developing players but more appealing how do they get more regular game time? I trained because I wanted to and did play regularly, to train train train and not play play play encorages no-one. So a real look at grassroots a deep understanding of other counties models a better coached and more enjoyable pathway and we may get somewhere but it will take at least 4-5 years before we even begin to see results.

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    • I have no knowledge of the pathway system so cant comment on it. Where it all starts however is getting young children interested in the game at the primary school level because if you dont get kids interested and involved in the game at a young age then whatever pathway programme you have will be with a lesser pool of players. This is a tough one to crack but I feel it is where the SRU needs to really focus some efforts to get kids interested in the game ahead of football and playing on their iPhone. You need to get involved with the schools to advance this. There may be efforts ongoing in this area so I may not be up to speed.

    • Funny you mention NZ. I watched an interview with some ex-All Blacks involved in player development in NZ and they are seeing their boys falling behind the approach of the big European nations. However, they would rather see well-rounded people at 23 and not have them “hot-housed” from a very young age.

      The one thing that doesn’t correlate to Scotland is that they can genetically still produce athletes and have an extremely high level of tier 2 competition in the NPC. An NPC player like Josh Mckay or Ethan Roots who weren’t really rated by the Super Rugby teams can move to Europe and make a name for themselves.

      • The genetic thing is a total red herring it’s about instilled attitude and having to fight for a jersey rather than be anointed. The Irish are genetically different to us yet we don’t have a back 5 forward who would display any of theirs. The only difference between Ireland and us is that they spent their cash developing home grown talent and we waste it on mercenaries. Can’t think of any other serious rugby nation where 2/3s of the pros come from external pathways. These were deliberate choices by Dodson etc al not accidents of genetics. Our pathway system is about excluding players not including them. Connacht produces more pro players than the whole Scottish system. The district development systems need to be massively increased and forced to stop excluding players until they are 22 +. If that means no more funding foreign scouting, DC Glory Stade Nicois etc then so be it. We scout more players in England than we do Scotland. This has been called out for years but the usual suspects won’t let go of the trough no matter how much harm they caused to the sport. Imagine if the £20 million that was earmarked for grassroots rugby had gone there instead of buying more foreign journeymen and filling the blazers pockets…

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  9. The SRU needs to develop some measurable and tangible targets in their grassroots development. Their staff need to be accountable and driven to those targets. Without performance targets, no improvements or changes will happen. The SRU should not be afraid to fail. They should establish ambitious goals and focus their activities around them. Eg. x new state school teams, x new girl teams, x improved and coordinated club S&C, expanded pathway opportunities, etc. If they at least tried and fell short, they would still likely achieve more than is happening now.

  10. Same thing has been going on for years with in scottish rugby, to many young players disregarded based on if they play club or fee paying schools, from under 15s clubs are treated like 2nd class citizens, pathway full of coaches kids and friends it’s who you know.

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    • Scott, looking at the team sheets for the recent U16 games at the Hive, of the 50 listed players over the Edinburgh Gunners and Reivers squads, there was a 70/30 split between club and school players respectively and a 65/35 split for Glasgow by the looks of things.

      What you’re saying doesn’t appear to be happening at U16 in Edinburgh. The problem the coaches have is that the private school players turn up at Pathway, for the most part, with a far better skill set than the club players. Given the amount of rugby they play and the full-time professional coaches they have, this is to be expected.

      Yes, the coaches need to look at potential in the boys, but there has to be a minimum skill set standard for the pathways to work. Otherwise, the ball keeps getting dropped every time it’s passed to the ‘big fast lad from X club’.

      Just my thoughts on the matter.

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    • Scott,

      I’m not sure your comments are borne out given last weekend’s U16 games at the Hive. If you look at the combined Edinburgh Gunners and Reivers squads, these had a 70/30 split in favour of the clubs. Glasgow split was 65/35 for the clubs.

      Edinburgh won both games (presumably because they had a larger club contingent.. 🙂 )

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      • Just wait until they are going into the u20 set up, look at who is and who isn’t given a contract and where they have played their youth rugby… looks good at u16 but only goes downhill from there.

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  11. Im a season ticket holder to watch edinburgh and regularly go to watch the national team inc the world cup. What does get on my goat is there seems to be an awful lot/number of people who are on the gravy train that don’t seem to be doing much, this was highlighted with Ruth Davidson why did she have to get an appointment , wether she’s paid or not i along with the many didn’t think that particular judgement was the best. we also seem to have lots of other coaches ,trainers etc etc Do we really so many ?

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  12. Why behind “closed doors”? No sevens programme. No Super Series. No A team fixture list. What is the point of the SRU?

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  13. Will any of the SRU Dodson apologists front up and defend the regime? Why does the SRU need 500 mediocrities to produce a failed pathway?

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  14. Nothing new in his comments that anyone close to the age grade scene does not know. I have called them Teflon coaches and that is exactly what they are a bunch of yes people with no back bone or honesty to stand up and say this is not working for years. The S/C is a joke and holiday camp when you watch them training only one with any idea is Strokosh but he is battling with coaches who are failing from 16s upwards. As for the rugby if the players would be honest a very high percentage would say they dislike it but have to be there. Mediocrity breeds the same and the coaches leading the session are not going to be taking on anyone who is not scared to ask questions put different ideas forward who is driven by success and will not except mediocrity or failure. Will develop players quicker and fully engage the schools and clubs instead of a constant battle.

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  15. Richie was & is his own man, Sep!
    He is undoubtedly a feisty & controversial little nyaff (something about which readers on here would imagine you are a closet expert, +9″) but at least Cockerill has accumulated suffient nous on his career travels to know more than a little about the relative qualities of his employers.
    Incidentally – today at the Hive – 0 – 38 in favour of Black Lion vs Combined Cities ProTeams “A” sides…. Yep, a 38 points to nil drubbing.

  16. Glasgow/Edinburgh A select were beaten 38-0 by his Blqck Lions team behind closed doors. With the hothousing of pathway players, barely getting game time, scrapping super series just as the pathway players were beginning to be involved and now talk of Glasgow and Edinburgh A sides possibly playing in South Africa to get game time next season… what is is about the pathway players/ performance that the SRU don’t want us to see?

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    • Black Lion is the Georgian national team minus the French-based players. No shame in losing to them.

      I would say putting a 3rd “Pro team” (maybe 4th team) into the Rugby Europe Super Cup would be a good way to get more minutes for these players.

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  17. Head in the sand again from the guys at the top. They’ll just stagger on and re-arrange the deckchairs again whilst remaining hopelessly out of touch with the average person.

    Glad they’ve at least called a vote of no confidence.

    Oh, hold on. Meant this for another news story…

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  18. Rumour has it that Dobson is on this thread reading comments and putting a thumbs down on them – mans a clown don’t take it personally if you have been down voted like me

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    • As much as it is easy to bash Dodson. I blame the self-interested blazers at senior clubs across our lands as much as I do the employees of Scottish Rugby.

      A turkey won’t vote for Christmas.

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  19. 100% agreed and so true…. would be interesting to know the names of those people (shame he didn’t mention them) that have been moved to other roles instead of getting the sack !?!

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  20. no sh&t sherlock from Cockerill

    We all know our pathways are not good enough. However here is a guy who has been shown the door from more clubs than I’ve had hot dinners. Getting the sack is certainly something he knows about.
    A dinosaur past his sell by date. We’ll see how Georgia progresses – much of their best progress was actually made under an SRU man, Richie Dixon

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    • Richie was & is his own man!
      He is undoubtedly a feisty & controversial little nyaff (something about which readers on here would imagine you are a closet expert, Sep”) but at least Cockerill has accumulated suffient nous on his career travels to know more than a little about the relative qualities of his employers.
      Incidentally – today at the Hive – 0 – 38 in favour of Black Lion vs Combined Cities ProTeams “A” sides…. Yep, a 38 points to nil drubbing.

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  21. The topic of Player Performance Pathway and our youth system on here is becoming like an echo chamber.

    It feels like there’s a collective and shared opinion that what we have, is not working and, this is being borne out by facts in the form of results and standings. No amount of whitewashing can disguise the fact that we are a Tier 2 youth rugby nation, our current national team has the highest proportion of “qualified” versus domestic players and it is still not performing at the level where most believe it should given the individual talent and skill within it.

    The fundamental problem is a lack of responsibility and accountability for these continued failings and the opinion and forecast is bleak as we lack the vision, strategy and plan to change tack and course correct. The SRU should be responsible for the Vision, Strategy and Plan for the next decade and they should, within their vast ranks of over 500 staff have an organisational resource that helps drive and execute against that strategy.

    Good on Cockers who now, freed from the autocratic old school of “command and control” (yep, there’s an irony there given his apparent coaching methods) regime that were his paymasters, has shone light on what we already suspected or knew.

    The forecast continues to be bleak I fear. The report from the strategy consultants on how to move forward remains under lock and key in EH12, the findings a closely guarded secret meantime, all we’ve done is made a box bigger on an old PowerPoint (yep, extend it to 23 because it keeps the same people doing the same things for longer), drawn an extra arrow (honest, we will look at clubland and bring talent in, aye right ! do you think we’re buttoned up the back) and our rigorous (cough) selection of players will learn rugby in our “hothouse” and play (aherm) somewhere (honest, we’ve got a plan called “A Teams).

    Chapeaux Cockers for saying it but I fear it’s just more sound waves in the echo chamber that are never heard or acknowledged by those actually responsible for improving this.

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  22. spot on from cockers. shame it took him to bring it up and not someone sat round an oak table at Murrayfield with a thistle stitched on their blazer, but are we really surprised.

    still though, least we beat England…that all that matters seemingly.

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  23. There is, or was recently, a readily available document on the internet on Leinsters’ pathway for a players pathway from schoolboy rugby to the Irish International team. Very enlightening reading it was too, and remarkably straightforward if one thought about it properly.

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    • Can you imagine the uproar on here if the SRU was the focus its pathway system through a small group of elite private schools.
      So much infighting, self preservation and guid old days nonsense that holds everything back.

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  24. Never a truer word spoken about the state of Scottish rugby. Can anyone name an U20 or next gen Scot for the national side? Harry Paterson is the ONLY name I can think of. If the suits had any morality they’d say to themselves “you know what? 100k is more than enough pay for anyone other than players except maybe Dodsons replacement, 150k max for him. Who is the future of Scottish rugby? The PLAYERS, that is where the money should be invested; not fat cat salaries”

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    • With 2 Pro teams we only need 2-3 per year to keep things filled. Harrison, Samuel, Muncaster, Hiddlestone and Williamson could all potentially tour this summer.
      Blyth-Laffert has a big future.

      Last weeks Edinburgh A Kights game had about a dozen 17-19 year old age grade kids playing.
      We are still producing playing we just can’t get them minutes at pro level with 2 clubs full of average pros.

      Both pro clubs need clear outs but in the last few weeks we have seen contracts given out to Rae, Williams and Price at Edinburgh.

      Too many people at all levels are far too comfortable in what should be results/performance driven environment.

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      • The Super six was supposed to give up and coming youth players the competition they so badly needed. It was great to see so many young players in the games at the weekend . But just as they are playing the youngsters they are sacking the tournament. Why didn’t they do it from the start instead of importing experience from elsewhere. The youngsters need games at appropriate levels to develop. Sitting watching rugby at the weekends instead of playing will not develop anyone.
        Whilst this process has no plan young players should look after themselves and hunt out opportunities to progress their development elsewhere. Return if and when the SRU get their plan and finances sorted out.

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      • @David Huggins. They played the young lads because the older experienced super six players have left. Yes, Super Six was supposed to be about bringing the youngsters through but certain clubs where more focussed on winning than developing talent. Now that its being disbanded they are letting the youngster have a go. Had they done that at the start, which is what it was supposed to be about, then it might still be going and we might be seeing a lot of the young talent that is largely going unnoticed coming through.

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  25. Will anyone in the SRU take any notice of his direct experience based views? Dodson’s regime obviously wouldn’t have done so here is an opportunity for their successors to show some backbone and act but I won’t hold my breath.

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  26. Scotland have defeated England regularly so should he be trying to sort the Structure at home.

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    • Head in the sand nonsense. You might also notice home for him is currently Georgia who seem to be progressing very well despite their lack of opportunities.

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      • Exactly. And where is Scotlands’ next generation? Please tell us, we’d all like to know

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  27. Correct on all points. Least he has courage to be honest while the trough sniffers still claim all is well.

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  28. It’s hard to argue against what he’s saying.

    There is a lack of accountability – from top to bottom.

    Are we the only tier 1 nation to have a single organisation structure under the same “Scottish Rugby” banner that controls everything? Individual Branches/Unions in Ireland/Aus/NZ/SA, private funding in Wales, England and France.

    It’s harder to provide scrutiny of regional development objectives and performance if it’s not outwardly visible.

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  29. He has absolutely nailed it, coaches and players all through the system who regardless of performance just get shuffled about. 5
    No place for sentiment in professional sport.

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