Eddie Jones’s first squad of the season gathered on Sunday, an intriguing 45-strong mix of experienced internationals and new faces hoping to make an instant impact on England’s head coach.
Arguably the most interesting of Jones’s new men are in his revamped coaching staff: Martin Gleeson, the attack coach, Anthony Seibold, the defence coach, and Richard Cockerill, a forwards coach. The Australian Seibold is not at the Lensbury club in south-west London in person but the former England hooker Cockerill is already three weeks into the job and itching to help prepare for autumn internationals against Tonga, Australia and South Africa.
The 50-year-old Cockerill is a recognisable figure in England and Scotland. Most recently he was head coach at Edinburgh but burnished his reputation with three Premiership titles as head coach at Leicester, leaving Welford Road four years ago.
With his departure the fortunes of the club nosedived and the Tigers are only now recovering from a fallow period.
But Cockerill’s elevation to coaching a national team, though, has raised a few eyebrows. Jones knows he has to assemble a pack that can compete with the very best in the world but in Matt Proudfoot, the scrum coach, he already has the best man in that role.
Cockerill is a scrummaging expert, too, but explained his new role: “I’m in charge of the lineout, attack and defence and the breakdown. Matt will be in charge of the scrum. There are a lot of moving parts and I know Matt and myself can work together.
“To give us an edge we have to be clear on how we want to play. My job is to keep the guys honest and on-task. I want this England pack to be difficult to play against, to be very physical. We have the ambition to win the next World Cup, so we have to be the best in the world. It’s as simple as that.”
Cockerill is encouraged by the standards in the first two weeks of the Premiership where Leicester have emerged as the early pace-setters with a swashbuckling style of rugby under the head coach, Steve Borthwick, and the new captain, Ellis Genge. “I’ve been impressed with the quality of the Premiership. It’s getting more and more competitive and the opening weekends we’ve seen some high scores and exciting rugby. It’s given me a lot to think about.
“I’ve been on the road visiting clubs, including Northampton where there were a few wry smiles. I’ve also been to Leicester, Exeter and Saracens. I know the Premiership and the people in it well and it’s helpful to be able to pick up the phone and speak to them.”
Cockerill has been particularly impressed with the progress of the loosehead prop Genge, who this autumn looks certain to claim the England No 1 shirt from Mako Vunipola. The Saracens player was left out of this latest squad despite touring with the British & Irish Lions while Genge was left at home.
“Ellis is a huge talent. He’s really developed as a person and matured really well. Ellis is his own man and a world-class player,” said Cockerill.
Cockerill and his new boss know, though, that if England are to go one step further than in 2019 and win the 2023 World Cup in France the breakdown will be the key to their progress. A look at the Springboks captain, Siya Kolisi, dominating in this phase of the game against the All Blacks in Queensland at the weekend gives Jones’s new recruit a measure of his task.