HOW TOUGH AND HOW LONELY DOES IT GET AS A PREMIERSHIP DIRECTOR OF RUGBY? DAI YOUNG OF WASPS, RICHARD COCKERILL OF LEICESTER TIGERS AND RICHARD HILL OF WORCESTER WARRIORS BARE – ALMOST – ALL.
Richard Cockerill is on his bike at seven sharp every morning for his noble, five-mile ride from his front door to the Leicester Tigers’ Training Ground; rain, hail or shine he’s head down over the handlebars dancing down the A6. Opinion in the office divides between those who are in awe of his heroic regime and those who suspect he just likes wearing Lycra.
Richard Hill – if you know the man at all – would cheerfully cycle to work too despite the fact that it’s a round trip of a hundred and sixty miles; the only problem being he’d have to get up each morning roughly an hour before he went to bed the night before. So the man who – reputedly – times himself while he does the washing up, contents himself with a 0645 departure each morning for the drive from Austen’s Bath to Elgar’s Worcester, which is, he says, ‘an hour and a quarter door-to-door spot on’. There are atomic clocks that aren’t as precise as Richard Hill.
Dai Young, on the other hand, sometimes does get up before he goes to bed, or at least he appears to; there are larks with later alarm calls than the Wasps’ Director of Rugby. ‘Generally you’re up around five, out of the house by five thirty and into the training ground by six,’ he says. ‘You wouldn’t believe it to look at me but I actually do a little bit of training when I arrive; spin the bike, blow away a few cobwebs, and then grab a bite of breakfast. First meeting with the coaches is generally at seven.’
A Director of Rugby’s days are as punishing as his hours and respite is rarer than a unicorn. Richard Hill actually snorted when asked where in the working week he finds a day of rest and Dai Young was – at best – evasive. ‘Wednesday-ish depending on what my kids are doing,’ says Richard Cockerill. ‘Yes, I know that might seem odd when I’m supposed to be running a rugby team but you haven’t met my wife, have you?’
The one release of the week would appear to be exercise and fresh air. Dai Young – as mentioned – has a broad-beamed bicycle and Richard Cockerill, apart from his own two-wheeled commute, does Bikram yoga – effectively, yoga in a sauna – a shuddering thought which almost makes you pine for the Lycra Look. ‘I do like a good walk,’ says Richard Hill, ‘and that’s Sunday, probably about ten miles with a pub lunch and a couple of pints of cider. This isn’t a stroll by the way; this is full on route marching with Mrs. Hill. She’s very good, very fast; walks me to death, she does but it gives us a chance to catch up on the week.’
A picture doesn’t take long to emerge when you talk to Directors of Rugby, the more so when you sit down to read your notes and start drawing your Venn diagram. The circles seem to converge on a potty-mouthed workaholic who rarely delegates and would rather French kiss a camel than stray more than two feet from his mobile phone. ‘’The Brain’, my family calls it,’ says Dai Young. ‘Where’s Dad’s brain?’
What also becomes crystal clear is that the Director of Rugby is the Alpha male at the club. At Leicester the backroom staff force Richard Cockerill to make the elevenses to try to keep him honest but no one’s fooled. ‘I think most people would tell you that my bite is worse than my bark’, he says, ‘but I’m not snarling all the time. At some point in the season when we’re talking player retention and recruitment, I may have to sit down with a guy and tell him I don’t want him anymore – and I may know his wife and kids – and that’s a tough conversation because we have some outstanding blokes here. That’s the part of the job I really, really don’t like.’
But across the board, being the boss clearly appeals and degrees of dictatorship vary between the absolute and the enlightened. ‘I trained as a teacher so, obviously, I like the sound of my own voice,’ says Richard Hill. ‘And while I do try to lead strongly – because I think that’s important – I do listen.’ Dai Young’s cut from much the same cloth. ‘Rugby players today are far too intelligent to be dictated to,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to involve them in the process and get some sort of buy-in. Then again, there are times when you have to say, ’look, I hear you but we’re doing to do it my way.’’
Honesty, it seems, is always the best policy. ‘It is,’ says Richard Hill, ‘ but it’s not always easy because if you were brutally honest all the time, you’d end up hurting people’s feelings and I wouldn’t want to do that. But if it’s a serious issue then honesty’s the only way’ or, as Richard Cockerill puts it, ‘if you’re not straight it only comes back and bites you on the arse.’
‘I’d say that honesty’s the one thing that stuck with me as a player and the one thing I pride myself on now as a coach,’ says Dai Young. ‘You don’t want to be rinsing players or being negative or disrespectful but you can’t just sit there and tell them what they want to hear. Straight talking’s not going to make you everyone’s cup of tea but at least you’re being consistent. And generally with players, if they’re in the team they think you’re okay and if they’re not, you’re an idiot. I think most of my players reckon my wife picks the team.’
Clearly delegating does not come naturally to any Director of Rugby. Richard Hill would love nothing more than to shift his dreaded timetables onto someone else – ‘I hate doing them’ – but he won’t. Dai Young detests emails – given he gets around 150 a day this is not surprising – but he ploughs through them nonetheless, micro-managing his club to such an extent that he and the kit-man have meetings about the team’s socks.
‘My smallest decision of the week?’ says Richard Cockerill. ‘I don’t make small decisions because every decision means something to somebody.’ Richard Hill thinks long and hard about this one. ‘My smallest decision of the week,’ he says, eventually, ‘is every Monday morning when Phil Vickery leaves a ‘Mars’ Bar on my desk – he does it deliberately just to tempt me – and I have to decide whether to eat it. Ten minutes later, it’s usually not there.’
Man management doesn’t appear to vary too much whichever Head Honcho you talk to; it’s a judicious blend of an arm around the shoulder and a size eleven boot up the backside or, as Dai Young puts it, ‘a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.’ But while certain coaches prefer to keep the criticism confidential, others – very deliberately – do the exact opposite. ‘I’m a very spur-of-the-moment sort of person,’ says Richard Cockerill, ‘and I think it’s important to criticise players in front of other players because in a team you’re responsible for the guy sitting next to you in the changing room. And once you’re in that dressing room and the door’s shut, it’s a man’s world and the gloves are off.’
‘Actually I think you have to be a bit careful in the dressing room,’ says Dai Young, ‘I’m not much of a one for ranting and raving or kicking over the furniture because you don’t get too far with that. Besides when things aren’t going well that’s precisely when the team need someone to be in control of the situation. Certainly you don’t want to be saying too much because it all becomes a muddle; two or three clear messages and all the negatives rounded off with a positive it usually the best way out.’
None of this plain speaking is a one-way street however. ‘If I have a problem with a player, I’ll tell him, so I’ve no issues if a player does the same with me,’ says Richard Cockerill. ‘In fact they can argue as much as they want and I’d respect that.’ Dai Young agrees wholeheartedly – ‘I’m quite happy for a player to tell me something’s crap as long as he can tell me why it’s crap and how we could do it better’ – while Richard Hill – fiery fellow – seems to positively revel in a good punch up.
‘That’s how I signed Shaun Perry when I was at Bristol,’ he recalls. ‘He was playing for Coventry, it was a narky old game and he and I had a right old toe-to-toe on the touchline at the end of it and I thought ‘I like him’. So I got him to Bristol the next season and he went on to play for England. It’s good; I like characters, I like people to be feisty and if we have a bit of a ding-dong that’s no problem at all.’
That said there are limits. ‘No, I wouldn’t sign a troublemaker even if he was a match-winner,’ says Dai Young. ‘Because the togetherness and the harmony of the team is too important and that cohesion – in itself – can win you tight matches you’re not really entitled to win without having to rely on some kind of maverick who messes up everything else.’
Results clearly are everything – ‘losing by tiny margins drives me mad,’ says Richard Hill – and the toughest part of the job seems to be managing the expectations of the supporters and the board. ‘Certainly if you don’t win often enough you’re not going to be in work for too long,’ says Dai Young, ‘but then again how many trophies would Alex Ferguson have won with Derby County’s squad and budget? I say this to people and they look at me like I’m stupid but one of my best achievements as a coach was keeping Wasps up last season’ – everyone injured, no money, insolvency lurking around every corner – ‘so it’s not always about winning, it’s about getting the very best out of the team you’ve got around you.’
Which, of course, involves microscopic preparation. ‘Oh, we go into minute detail on the opposition and individual players,’ says Richard Cockerill. ‘Left foot, right foot, which hand he carries with, which hand he fends with. We’re as anal as anal can be.’ Ditto the analysis of referees; penalty counts, when they’re happy to be talked to and when there’re not. ’Yeah, we’ll watch all their stuff,’ says Richard, ‘and we try to envisage how they’ll approach the game, as hard as that is. The only problem is that you might spot something he was slack on last week – say the lineout – and his assessor might spot the same thing, so the week after – your game – he’s suddenly blowing up all the ploys you’ve worked on at the lineout, so you have to be a little bit careful.’
You wonder to what extent the public and the supporters appreciate any of this, or indeed anything else about what the job entails. ‘No, to be honest, I don’t think they get it,’ say Richard Cockerill, ‘and why should they? All they want to do is turn up at a weekend and watch a win and that’s fair enough. And if we don’t win, I have to be pretty thick-skinned because I’ll get the blame. Yes, we’re in it together, players and management, win or lose but it’s a fact of life that I’ll get the sack first and I know that.’
All of which – perhaps – explains the sleepless nights, to which everyone – cheerlessly – confesses. ‘If you’ve had a bad loss your guts’ll be churning and you can be seething all night long,’ says Richard Hill. ‘In fact I wake up the next morning and my guts are still churning and it’s ridiculous and you can’t help it. But then again, I suppose if that wasn’t happening you’d know you weren’t caring as much as you should do.’
It can work the other way too. ‘Sometimes I find it hard to sleep after a good win,’ says Richard Cockerill. ‘The excitement and the adrenalin is worse than caffeine’ but for Dai Young, selection’s the bugbear. ‘The night before selection, that’s always my sleepless night,’ he says, ‘because the players put a lot of work in and they all want to play so I never pick the team lightly. Sometimes the stats make the decision for you, other times it’s a gut feeling, like standing by a class player who’s running through a sticky patch. But it’s always a sleepless night, that one.’
Richard Hill agrees. ‘Selection doesn’t keep me awake but no question, it’s hugely important,’ he says, ‘for example, just picking people at the right time and knowing when that time is. Some players can turn in three or four good performances and drop off in game five so you need to pull them out. And sometimes they don’t like that and sometimes the supporters are scratching their heads but your selections are often quite scientific; you know, who are we up against, what’s the pitch like, is it going to pour with rain?’
As to which of the team – positionally – is worth his weight in gold, opinion covers the full spectrum. ‘Certain things in life never change so your tight-head props, your decision makers and your goal-kickers carry the biggest price tag,’ says Dai Young. ‘The market tends to dictate who the most important players are and your tight-heads right now are commanding some big wedge.’
‘Oh, your ten’s your man,’ says Richard Hill. ‘He’s the one who’ll transfer what you’ve done on the training pitch into the game and if your ten goes off message then you’re all over the place, so he has to run the show; him and the captain, they’re the key men on the team.’ Richard Cockerill, however, isn’t so sure. ‘I don’t actually think there is a ‘most-important-player’,’ he says. ‘Some would say it’s your tight-head and your reserve tight-head but I think everyone has their role and their importance.’
Certainly that’s what an agent would tell you but, then again, Directors of Rugby aren’t always convinced that what an agent tells you is gospel. ‘I find it very hard dealing with agents,’ says Richard Hill. ‘They’re a bit like traffic wardens, aren’t they? I mean they know no one likes them but as much as I love a bit of banter, it’s a tough time when you’re recruiting.’ Dai Young agrees. ‘I’m no agent-knocker but they seem to have very few players who won’t have ten other options for twice what you’re prepared to pay,’ he says. ‘So dealing with them is hard work and a bit of a guessing game. Certainly no agent’s ever going to ring you up and say, ‘look, my player’s got no other offers and he’ll play for you for a bag of peanuts’. Doesn’t happen. And if it did you’d start worrying about what’s wrong with the bloke to be honest.’
Mind you if you’re going to be stuck in a lift, better alongside an agent than a journalist. ‘I never read anything in the papers or watch anything on television,’ says Richard Hill. ‘I’d just rather not. I keep away from it all and concentrate on what I’m doing.’ Intriguingly, Richard Cockerill does the exact opposite. ‘No, I read stuff, particularly if they’re talking about us or about me,‘ he says. ‘You need to know what people are saying. Would I ever mislead a journalist? Not mislead them exactly but I do hold a bit back. I’m not smart enough to lie and cover my tracks.’
Dai Young is probably the wariest of all when it comes to dealing with the poets of the press box. ‘When I first started out I used to get quite upset with journalists. It’s fine unless it gets personal and that happens far more in Wales than it does in England. But you can’t get worked up about it otherwise you’d be running around all day throttling people. And you get older and wiser, so now I know that nothing’s ever ‘off the record’ because if he doesn’t write it, he’ll just tell his mate and he’ll write it instead.’
But whatever pressmen or anyone else says about the team, no one looks harder at the shortcomings than the Director of Rugby. ‘Oh, the weekend’s toast if the game’s been poor,’ says Richard Cockerill. ‘If we’re at Welford Road, I’ll have a beer at the club then I’ll go home and watch the game and start going through it immediately. The deadline’s Monday at half two when we finish with the team review. Once that’s done – good, bad or indifferent – we move on.’
Richard Hill is much the same. ‘On a Saturday game, if we’ve lost, I’m generally working well into the early hours of Sunday,’ he says, ‘two or three in the morning at least. I have to watch the game back and I can’t go to sleep until I’ve worked out what happened, what I’m going to do about it and what I’m going to say to the players on Monday morning. A win’s different. I may not even watch the game. I might just come home and have a glass of wine and a smile.’
Mind you, sitting at home wearing a smile is by no means a default position. ‘If anyone says they don’t take the pressure home, they’re a liar because you do,‘ says Dai Young, ‘and it’s often tough on the family. You can’t afford to have mood swings at work because you’re the barometer of the team and you have to lead but you can at home and that makes life difficult.‘
‘You need a sensible wife,’ says Richard Hill, ‘someone to give you a different slant on things because otherwise you can go a bit mad in this job. So I’ll come home – positive person that I am – and I’ll say look, it wasn’t that bad a defeat; the defence was good, we didn’t give away too many penalties, the set-piece worked well and Karen will just turn round and say, ‘but you lost’. She just cuts out all the rubbish – actually she’s brutal – but that’s good.’
Richard Cockerill by contrast takes little or nothing home and if he ever does, it stays in his bag in the hall. ‘I’m not sure my wife and kids actually know what I do for a living,’ he says. ‘I rank fifth in the line of importance in our house and if we had a dog, I’d be sixth. But I am useful. I cooked dinner last night: jacket potato, salad and prawns, although most of that came out of packets in the fridge. Does that count as cooking?’ It does if you’re comparing yourself with Dai Young. ‘I make a good sandwich, apparently,’ he says, ‘but that’s it.’
Clearly there are huge limitations to how useful a Director of Rugby is around the house. ‘If the bathroom need tiling, that’s ring a man,’ says Richard Cockerill and Dai Young’s much the same. ‘My father-in-law does most of our DIY,’ he says, ‘although I did once hammer a nail into a wall.’ Richard Hill actually has his own toolbox. ‘It’s a Tupperware pot with two old plugs in it and a rusty screwdriver,’ he says. ‘Usually I just call Ralph up the road who comes round, does a great job and chuckles at my toolbox. I think he dines out on it, to be honest.’
The truth – you suspect – is that even when they’re there, they’re somewhere else. ‘I’m afraid I do rugby every day for 365 days of the year,’ says Richard Cockerill. ‘That’s me. On holiday I used to take my phone to the beach but the rule now is that it has to stay in the apartment. I’m not happy about it.’ Dai Young’s much the same. ‘If you want a job, then do something else,’ he says, ‘because this is a way of life.’
Certainly there are very few concessions to ‘The Job’, although Richard and Karen Hill do go to the Theatre Royal in Bath every Wednesday evening without fail. ‘We watch whatever’s on, whether it’s Shakespeare or a comedian or a musical. It’s lucky dip. Last time it was Rowan Atkinson in some play, what was it called? He was a schoolteacher; no don’t tell me, ‘Quartermaine’s Terms’, that was it. Got some nice reviews, that did. Mind you my favourite was ‘The Tempest’ because twenty minutes in, all the scenery fell down and they had to start again.’
All three of them would give anything to still be playing and they freely admit that coaching is nothing more than the next best thing. ‘Inspiration?’ says Richard Cockerill. ‘Not often: I just do what I do as well as I can and I go home. Obviously there’s stuff you regret. I wrote a book after the 1999 World Cup and made some poor remarks about Clive Woodward. He’s now on the Board here at Leicester, which has unfortunately made a shit decision even shittier than it was to start with.’
‘Yes, it can be a lonely job at times,‘ says Dai Young, and yes, you can make poor decisions. I’ve made enough of them. But you can turn anything around with the right mind-set and the right people. You have to be positive. ’And if someone were to ask for advice on the coaching life? ‘Stick to what you believe in,’ says Richard Hill. ‘There are always doubters but just stick to your beliefs and don’t be put off.’ Dai Young agrees. ‘Don’t copy anyone else and just be yourself,’ he says. ‘And that applies to a lot more than just coaching.’
28 FEBRUARY 2013