Richard Cockerill has always been vocal, forthright and blunt. He has carried those three attributes around for the entirety of his professional life and forged a successful career on the back of them. Yesterday, when probed about the wellbeing of his first-choice fly-half Toby Flood, the Leicester Tigers director of rugby flew off the handle in a characteristically obdurate manner.
In short, Cockerill absolutely slammed England boss Stuart Lancaster, accusing the England boss of naivety and implying his comments earlier in the week regarding Flood’s ankle injury – and physio Phil Pask’s visit to Oval Park ahead of next month’s tour to South Africa – had divulged “privileged information.”
Reading between some very black and white lines, it became apparent that the former England hooker was effectively accusing Lancaster of compromising the good faith of Leicester Tigers in order to appease a media wolf pack. It was a damning indictment that featured a typically abrasive Cockerill-ism:
“Toby is on club duty. It is our business and the speculation is not helpful.”
Now, conflict between club and country is never pretty. It always reminds me of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ruthlessly narrow-minded policies that, while unparalleled in terms of success, win few friends. Of course it is not Cockerill’s desire to endear himself to anyone, but open-air derision is rarely beneficial.
Critically, the outburst has also exposed some tension in the Tigers’ ranks just over a week away from the Aviva Premiership final clash with Harlequins. Having stumbled against the Saracens in last season’s decider, there will be a private sense of desperation about the preparation of the East Midlands side.
Unfortunately for Leicester fans, that has just been made public. George Ford would do well to cover his ears.
Expect Lancaster to handle this matter with dignity and understatement, as he has dealt with every situation so far since Martin Johnson vacated the hottest seat in rugby. Expect Cockerill to retire to his cave and whip his charges into a frenzy for their Twickenham encounter next Saturday.
Above all though, hope that the working relationship between this pair – pivotal to the health of England rugby – does not strain any further. Besides Flood, there are eight other Tigers set for the trip to face the Springboks. Trust is vital.