Kockott’s cold reception

Rory Kockott has yet to convince the French public that he is passionate about Les Bleus, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.

Rory Kockott never returned SA Rugby magazine’s request for an interview in November. The former Shark turned France scrumhalf was presumably focusing on his international debut, a hat-trick of appearances off the bench in what was a mixed month for Les Bleus.

The good work in beating Fiji and Australia was undone by a poor performance against the Pumas in France’s final match, with Argentina deservedly winning 18-13 for their first victory on French soil since the 2007 World Cup.

Kockott did himself no harm in the short amount of time he appeared – a total of 74 minutes spread over the three Tests. He got nearly a half against the Pumas, replacing Sébastien Tillous-Borde on 47 minutes and then producing a snappy display as the French tried to claw back the 15-3 half-time deficit. That they failed was in spite of Kockott’s best efforts, the 28-year-old scrumhalf kicking a long-range penalty in a performance that was grudgingly praised by one French newspaper.

Sports daily L’Equipe gave Kockott five out of 10 for his performance, two stars better than Tillous-Borde. But then, as the paper was quick to point out, Kockott ‘had the advantage of playing behind an advancing pack’, a reference to the French scrum that improved considerably in the second half after a raft of substitutions.

Kockott should get used to such guarded compliments. For while there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing much more of him in the blue shirt in 2015, it’s also likely he’ll go through his international career enjoying, at best, a lukewarm relationship with his adopted country. Think Kevin Pietersen and England, and a public who admired the player but had little affection for the man.  

Kockott will always struggle to convince the French that his veins course with blood that is red, white and blue. They had little problem accepting Pieter de Villiers and Bernard le Roux as one of them, and Scott Spedding has been clutched to the Gallic bosom ever since the footage of him weeping with joy at the news of his France call-up went viral.

The French love emotion, adore passion and mistrust people who seem lacking in either. Just look what they think of their neighbours across the Channel. And to many in France, Kockott comes across as just a little, well, English. Cold, uncompromising and, worst of all in their eyes, calculating.

It’s likely he’ll go through his international career enjoying, at best, a lukewarm relationship with his adopted country

When he rose from the bench for his first cap against Fiji, his name was greeted with boos from some of the fans in the Marseille crowd. Maybe they were Toulon supporters, who have neither forgotten nor forgiven Kockott’s actions last season in signing a pre-contract deal with the club only to change his mind when Castres offered him what was rumoured to be a substantial pay rise. Or perhaps they gave him the bird because they see his allegiance to France as being as tenuous as their chances of lifting the World Cup.

Certainly, the resentment felt by a small section of the Marseille crowd was reflected on social network sites, with one message on Twitter – retweeted several times – illustrative of how French rugby fans view some of their South African-born brethren: ‘Spedding est devenu français par choix, Kockott vient en EDF [equipe de France] par opportunism [Spedding became French by choice, Kockott came to the French team by opportunism].’

Kockott is trying his best to win over the public, granting several interviews to French papers in November in which he was decidedly ‘on message’.

He told one of how he cheered for France when they beat the All Blacks in the epic 1999 World Cup semi-final, how he loves foie gras and the delights of raising chickens in the French countryside.

But Kockott’s problem is that he is not one of life’s ‘hearts-on-your-sleeves’ men. As a rugby player it’s his great strength, his ability to keep a cool head in the heat of battle. As a human being it can make him seem bloodless. Asked if he felt indebted to France for giving him the chance to wear the national jersey, he replied: ‘I’m doing my job in this country. My existence is therefore here. In these conditions, I feel duty-bound to give my best to fully respect this jersey.’

With answers like that it’s hardly surprising one French journalist wrote that Kockott ‘didn’t overflow with enthusiasm’ when they talked about his first cap. Rather, the writer was left with the impression of a man with a ‘cold smile’. But as Kockott explained, ‘I’m someone who keeps his emotions inside. It’s in this state that I am at my best level.’

Like him or loathe him, the French are going to have to get used to Kockott for the foreseeable future. He might not be much good at winning ‘hearts and minds’ but when it comes to winning matches, the quality of his play and the composure of his head make him top class.

If he is an opportunist, as many in France feel, he’s certainly made the most of his opportunities so far.

– This article first appeared in the January-February issue of SA Rugby magazine

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