Richard Cockerill found out a long time ago that when one door opened another was always liable to smash him in the face.
His one and only international try at Twickenham, against Ireland at the end of the Five Nations in 1998, brought England’s abrasive hooker a rebuke from one of the RFU’s 57 ‘old farts’ for the heinous crime of booting the ball into the crowd in jubilation.
“After the match this committee man comes up to me and says: ‘You shouldn’t have done that,” Cockerill said of the incident. “‘If that ball had struck someone drinking a cup of hot coffee the RFU would have been liable for compensation had the person been scalded.’ I ask you! I just walked away.”
He has been not so much opening doors ever since as blasting through them. More than a few have caught him on the rebound, especially in Europe and his four Heineken Cup finals with Leicester, three as a player, one as head coach.
He only played in the first, at Cardiff Arms Park in 1997 when Brive gave England’s then champion team a fearful runaround. When the Tigers won successive finals against Munster and Stade Francais, Cockerill sat both out as a redundant substitute.
His last final, a fortnight after Leicester made him their head coach, coincided with Leinster’s first, at Murrayfield 10 years ago. At 48, Cockerill will be back there on Friday night 80 minutes away from giving Edinburgh what it’s had just once before, a home quarter-final.
In prising open the most heavily reinforced door of his eventful rugby life, ‘Cockers’ is in the process of doing the tournament as a whole an almighty favour. Edinburgh have given it a sorely needed element of surprise.
They have done so, what’s more, with panache and pizzazz, qualities embodied by Viliame Mata in conjuring up the 80-metre try that put Toulon out for the count. As proof that money can’t buy everlasting love, Edinburgh dumped them on their expensive backsides by completing a record double to the tune of 68-31.
For his next trick, Cockerill has one more mountainous opponent to move out of harm’s way which ought not to be as difficult as it sounds for an expert in rearranging the rugby landscape. Montpellier, built on big money by a Beduoin tribesman’s son who made his billions out of scaffolding, stand between Edinburgh and the promised land.
It is one of life’s little ironies that the growler responsible for their rise happens to be a French polisher, a craft which Cockerill gave up when the game went professional but which comes in handy when obliged to polish off Gallic opposition.
The effect has been to make the rugby man from Rugby a leading contender to be Scotland’s favourite Englishman, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Cockerill will be far too concerned about Montpellier to give two monkeys about anything else.
If Edinburgh make it, their head coach will resist any temptation to let history repeat itself by kicking the ball into the stands. You never know, it could expose him to action from a spectator scalded by spilt coffee…
If they finish up next weekend as they stand this morning, Europe’s seeded quarter-finals will be as follows: Saracens (1) v Toulouse (8); Racing (2) v Ulster (7); Leinster (3) v Glasgow (6); Edinburgh (4) v Munster (5).
A twist or two of the kaleidoscope over the last pool round could create a very different picture. For all Joey Carbery’s magic behind a dominant pack at Gloucester, Munster will need a repeat against Exeter at Thomond Park on Saturday to be sure of their customary quarter-final.
A maximum five-pointer may not be enough to guarantee them the home comfort of Limerick.
A five-pointer for Exeter would leave Munster free to concentrate on the PRO14 and put the English Premiership leaders through instead.
Nobody has yet made sure of a home tie. Racing will expect to clinch theirs by completing the double over Scarlets in Paris on Saturday. Saracens need to keep winning against Glasgow in north London, Leinster must beat Wasps in Coventry and Edinburgh likewise against Montpellier.
That 10 are still in varying degrees of contention for the knock-out stages speaks volumes for the competition. This is how they stand, with points difference in brackets:
Three best runners-up:
Season in, season out, Castres can always be relied upon to stay streets ahead of the pack when it comes to collecting red cards.
Having long turned it into a one-horse race, the French champions duly consolidated their position yesterday with another piece of gratuitous violence on the Chiefs’ reservation in Exeter.
Tudor Stroe’s blow to an opponent’s head left referee George Clancy no option but to send the substitute loosehead packing once the TMO had drawn his attention to it.
Castres have now had 28 players sent off over the last 17 seasons, nine more than the nearest challengers on the serial offenders’ front, Stade Francis and Perpignan.
Over the same period, Leinster have had two reds, Connacht three, Ulster seven, Munster eight.
The continuing English exodus will reinforce their Premiership’s collective view that the sooner they scrap
relegation, the better.
They will see the probable wipe-out of all seven European contenders bar Saracens as damning evidence that they are victims of the relentless ferocity of their own domestic competition.
Elsewhere there won’t be a smidgeon of sympathy but the English do have a point, up to a point. Ulster sent an almost entire second XV to Dublin the previous week in the PRO14 and wrote the match off rather than let it jeopardise their make-or-break tie against Racing.
None of the English also-rans — Bath, Leicester, Wasps, Newcastle, Gloucester — could afford to downgrade any Premiership fixture for fear of disappearing through the trap door into the comparative oblivion of the second tier.
As per usual, the weekend inflicted a few bruises on the shape of the Six Nations.
No sooner had one Irish scrum-half been removed from the Champions’ Cup, John Cooney, than another followed, Luke McGrath.
Wales heaved a sigh of relief at Taulupe Faletau’s return three months after breaking an arm, but wound up fretting over Dan Biggar’s early exit limp out of Northampton’s 88-point extravaganza at Clermont.
15. Brice Dulin (Racing)
14. Darcy Graham (Edinburgh)
13. Will Addison (Ulster)
12. Nick Tompkins (Saracens)
11. Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
10. Joey Carbery (Munster)
9. Conor Murray (Munster)
1. Dave Kilcoyne (Munster)
2. Sean Cronin (Leinster)
3. Stephen Archer (Munster)
4. Leone Nakawara (Racing)
5. Tadhg Beirne (Munster)
6. Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)
7. Jordi Murphy (Ulster)
8. Viliame Mata (Edinburgh)