THERE was something which did not quite ring true about the press release last month announcing the departure of Richard Cockerill from the head coach role at Edinburgh by “mutual consent”.
Cockerill had spoken with conviction at the end of last season about his plans to drive the club forward, and while he is undoubtedly now “pursuing other opportunities”– he has been strongly linked with a role in the England national team set-up – it is clear that the former hooker did not have another job lined up.
As for Edinburgh/Scottish Rugby, they had awarded Cockerill a contract extension last August which was supposed to keep him north of the border until at least the summer of 2023.
“He’s doing a fantastic job and he wants to make sure we take Edinburgh to the next level,” said SRU chief executive Mark Dodson at the time.
Plus, the coach was given a budget to recruit hard last season, bringing in players who would fit into his vision for the club, meaning that his successor, Mike Blair, must now try to put his own stamp on an entirely inherited squad.
So, the timing and suddenness of it was a surprise to the outside world – but not so much for the players, who had let the Murrayfield top brass know that all was not well behind the scenes.
“We’re involved in a feedback process at the end of the season, we didn’t know what was going to be done with that – we weren’t involved in any kind of decision-making with that – but it was clear from the review process that we needed to change a few things having under-performed,” veteran second-row Grant Gilchrist said.
“In professional sport that’s what happens if you’ve had a poor season. There was some feedback that we gave as players that we felt it was important to change, the Union had their own review, and we are where we are now with a new coach.”
Gilchrist is quick to highlight that Cockerill achieved a lot of positive things for Edinburgh during his four years in the Scottish capital and insisted that there had been no direct calls from the squad to change the coach.
But it is clear that player-power was a factor in how things turned out. “We didn’t want to delve into things that are not our job,” he continued. “It was important as a playing group all the way through that we fed back on things that were within our control, and we did that always in the right way.
“We spoke directly to Cocker as a head coach, and we made sure as a player group that we didn’t want to be involved in anything political around suggesting these things.
“And we gave a lot of feedback on things that did work well. We’re talking about the foundations that have been set by Cocker in his time at the club and we obviously want to evolve from that strong foundation.
“We’ve had success, but last year highlighted that we need to evolve, whether that was with Cocker or without Cocker. It’s turned out that it’s without, and we’re in a great position to evolve in certain areas.
“As a player group we had a good grasp of what all the players felt. It was not a surprise to us. None of it was a surprise. We knew. We’re a tight-knit group: there were no factions with certain guys feeling one way and certain guys feeling differently. We were all pretty clear on what feedback we gave.
“There were certain things that Cockers wouldn’t budge on, but if that was the case we would keep having open dialogue with him. Certain things he was open to. Maybe a slight negative was that wasn’t across the board.
“We would push for more and more responsibility as players, which wasn’t always given. It was his style and it had merits, it had success. But it had to evolve, and when it didn’t, that’s where inevitably there became a change.”
The world keeps spinning and now it is time for Gilchrist and his team-mates to look ahead. The squad spent last week at a training camp in Largs as the build-up to the first pre-season game against Newcastle Falcons on September 11.
“After four years of one style, it feels fresh and feels new, and that can be exciting,” he said. “I think that has rejuvenated the playing group. Sometimes that fresh approach is needed and can breathe a new lease of life into guys.
“Overall we’re in a good place now and I want to talk about the future of Edinburgh. Mike has come in, and we’re really excited by a former player, someone who’s got a respect for the work that’s been done and understands the value in what’s been done over the last four years, but also [knows] the things that have to be better.
“That balance of keeping those fundamentals but also bringing in a freedom, bringing in a confidence – especially to the way we attack – is really exciting the boys. They’re lapping it up. You can feel the buzz around the place.”