Speaking at the launch of the 2013/2014 Aviva Premiership, Leicester Tigers head coach Richard Cockerill was typically forthright in his views surrounding the new scrum laws about to come into effect in the Northern Hemisphere.
“It’s different,” he said. “It’s taken a little bit of getting used to – we’ve played a couple of games and it’s been a little bit messy – a different mess, but still a mess. I don’t know whether it’s de-powering the scrum or not, or whether you’ve got a generation of hookers that are now being asked to hook again after it’s been a pushing contest for such a long time, but we’ll have to see how it works out.”
Does he think it’s improved from the evidence seen so far in the Rugby Championship?
“Certainly not in the first test (between NZ and Australia) – you’ve got two of the best scrum-halves in the world laughing at each other because they’re worried about feeding the ball and getting a yellow card. The referees are behind that a bit because they’ve not had time to practise it, certainly in the Southern Hemisphere – obviously Premiership referees will have had a little bit more practice going into it.”
And he is in no doubt about the fact that there has been a glaring lack of communication between those that make the laws, and the guys currently coaching and playing the game at the highest level. Not mincing his words, Cockerill suspects the new changes are being driven by the Southern Hemisphere’s desire to devalue the scrum – interesting comments, particularly in light of the Lions’ comprehensive victories over Australia this summer, of which the foundations lay firmly in dominance at scrum time.
“The thing is, the lawmakers change things but nobody’s asked the Premiership coaches about the laws of the scrum, so I don’t know who changes these things and on what agenda they’re acting.” he said. “They say it’s safety, but it looks like the Southern Hemisphere just trying to devalue the scrum so the ball comes in and out a bit quicker and it makes it a bit more even when it gets to the Northern Hemisphere.
“We’ll have to see. You’d like to think that with the coaches and players we have in the premiership, at some point the people that make these laws up would consult us rather than just change it.”
Scrummaging frustration aside, Leicester’s director of rugby says pre-season has been progressing well despite the shadow of his ban hangong over the squad.
“My activity in the week is no different, it’s just on match-days that I can’t have any contact with the playing staff – but most of the team are thankful for that anyway,” he joked. “I’ve got a superb group of coaches with me – Paul Burke, Richard Blaze and Geordan Murphy – as well as lots of very experienced players. Does it affect the team? Probably not. Does it affect me? Certainly. But that’s what happens when you break the rules I suppose.”
Last season was a huge one for the traditional powerhouse of English rugby, as they banished the bottlers tag and romped to a convincing victory at Twickenham to claim the title. Cockerill insists, however, that the level of expectation surrounding the club has not stepped up.
“At Leicester the expectation is always huge. We won the championship and an hour later… the chairman says ‘well you should win it because you’re the best side’, so that’s just the nature of Leicester being Leicester. Our goal is to try and win it again now. We’ll be champions everywhere we go, so for us every game is a tough game because everyone raises themselves to play us. That’s the nature of it and the squad that we have. That’s the job any coach at Leicester inherits.”
The Tigers have long been associated with a power-focussed game, labelled ‘boring’ and ‘unadventurous’ by their (perhaps jealous) detractors. The stats paint a wholly different picture, however, with the Leicestermen topping the try-scoring charts for the last four seasons in a row. This is no accident.
“If you want to be successful you have to try and play; you have to have an open game and try to score tries,” noted Cockerill. “I think if you try to keep the game close, to grind out games at the death, it’s a very dangerous game to play.
“At Leicester we’ve always been accused of being quite a negative side, but over the last five or six years we have become a very positive team, certainly with the players we have. And the mindset going into games is that you need to score tries to win, first and foremost, and then get bonus points. I think you have to come with a positive mindset, and you’ve seen that across all the sides. You have to make sure you do that in the right way, but I think the positive mindset to try to outplay teams is a good mentality to have.”
As is the Leicester way, Cockerill is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. The talent across the premiership this season is impressive, and not just out on the pitch.
“I think the coaching across the board in the Premiership is very strong,” he said. “We know all about Dean Ryan at Worcester and what he brings to the Premiership – he’ll make them a lot stronger. Then Newcastle have got Dean (Richards) and John Wells – I know them well enough to know they’ll produce a hard team to play against, and they’ll be very difficult to beat. They’re two very astute rugby men.
“I think across the board it’s going to be more difficult than it’s ever been – any side can beat any side on their day, and those sides in the bottom half last year have improved and will come with better squads. It’s going to be more competitive and harder than ever, which hopefully will make it a better competition.”
Despite bemoaning the scrum, Leicester’s director of rugby is looking forward to the new season. And although he might be stuck in the stands, metaphorically tearing his hair out at not being involved, you can bet the Tigers will continue to play under the Cockerill blueprint that has served them so well up until now.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images