Kockott’s final French chapter

Former Sharks scrumhalf Rory Kockott hopes to finish his career in France with an unforgettable flourish, writes JAMES HARRINGTON in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Two more seasons. That’s how long Kockott has given himself before retirement. It could have been sooner.

‘To be honest, this was going to be my last season,’ he says of the 2020-21 Top 14 campaign, which – for his club Castres Olympique – kicks off in September. ‘I was very happy to draw the line. I was happy to finish on a strong foot.’

Head coach Mauricio Reggiardo and club president Pierre-Yves Revol had other ideas. ‘The club asked me to play another season after this,’ Kockott says. ’After a lot of thought, I decided to play one more. Then, I’m sure that’ll be the finish line.’

Kockott will be approaching 36 when he passes his self-imposed stop sign. He is considering a coaching future and says he has ‘a few options’ on the table.

But it makes sense for Castres to keep him on the playing staff for now, beyond the mere fact he has cult-hero status.

He is by far Castres’ most experienced No 9. New Uruguay international recruit Santiago Arata and academy graduate Jeremy Fernandez are both 23 and tasting Top 14 rugby for the first time, as Castres rebuild from the youth.

Kockott joined the Top 14 club from the Lions, aged 25, on a short-term contract in 2011, as cover for the injured Thierry Lacrampe. He soon signed a longer deal, and has been part of the club landscape ever since.

There are ups and downs in any lengthy relationship and the Kockott-Castres partnership is no exception. It saw Top 14 title highs in 2013 and 2018, and the disappointment of a Final defeat in 2014. It survived a relegation dogfight in 2015.

It even got over rumours of a move to Racing 92, Toulouse temptation, and a flirtation with Toulon’s galacticos, shortly after Castres lifted their first French championship title in 20 years.

Kockott was the hottest of Top 14 properties at the time, and in the optional extra year of his first full-time contract at Castres. It was no surprise that a ‘big’ side would come knocking. He signed a pre-contract agreement with Toulon and made it clear he was ready to move to the Mediterranean. In the end, he backtracked, and signed a three-year extension with Castres.

He said in a TV interview at the time, he was ‘grateful for the opportunities’ but that he decided to stay where he was for family reasons. He has not been exactly welcomed at Stade Mayol since.

There was also the bittersweet France selection. Kockott was named in the France squad in September 2014, after qualifying by residency in July.

Some South African rugby commentators had called on then-coach Heyneke Meyer to give Kockott a shot before he was lost to the Springboks. Meyer ignored them.

As a result we can only speculate on what might have been, whether with South Africa, or even a better-performing French side. The truth is, Kockott’s Test selection didn’t sit well with many in France. He could not free himself from the heavy ‘mercenary’ tag hung around his neck by the French press, who repeatedly dragged up his dalliances with Toulouse and Toulon as evidence.

He played 11 times for Les Bleus and went to the 2015 World Cup in England. His last game was as a substitute in the 63-12 quarter-final humiliation by the All Blacks.

Most recently, the Kockott-Castres marriage endured the 2019-20 season. After four years of repeated success under Christophe Urios, the club was under new management. It didn’t start well. Castres were 10th when the season was halted after 17 rounds.

‘Last year, we weren’t in a good place,’ Kockott says. ‘The organisation was horrible and we didn’t have much of a mission statement in place. We had little vision in our entire season and in the team itself. We lacked in a lot of departments – and it showed.

‘Hopefully that will change this year. We have a lot better structures in place. We’ve built better foundations. We’ve started a better player culture that we would like to cultivate. That all helps to get a better end-product.’

He accepted that there had been a hint of improvement, notably after former England back row Joe Worsley joined as defence coach. ‘There were sparks towards the end of last season – certainly in our defensive structures that created a bit of confidence, but up until then there wasn’t much.’

It wasn’t that Reggiardo, who joined from Agen, didn’t know the club, or that players and staff didn’t know him. The Argentinian played for Castres for a decade, and had been parachuted in on a short-term contract to help drag the club out of the relegation mire in 2015.

It wasn’t that the new coach didn’t have a plan, either. His mission was to create a new, younger Castres and he couldn’t do that with an inherited side. His most important actions last season were backstage. Fourteen of the 18 senior squad players to leave the club last season were over 30. One – prop Karena Wihongi, who retired midway through the season, was 40. Another, club icon Rodrigo Capo Ortega, was 39.

None of the new signings have yet hit 30; six are 23 or younger, and greater emphasis is being placed on the academy set-up. But Kockott wasn’t sure the clearout needed to be so dramatic. ‘It’s certainly one of the biggest changes in the squad since I’ve been at Castres. Whether it’s needed, I’m not sure. Whether it will be merited, I’m not sure either.

‘I think the biggest part is to get the new guys to understand that we play at a high level – that we’re here to win and to be a top-performing side in Europe. We’re not just here to fill a spot or just to earn a salary every month.’

Despite the unexciting 7-5 scoreline in Castres’ opening pre-season penalty-strewn win over Agen – the side they face on the opening weekend of the season proper – there are hints that this side is planning a faster, more attacking style.

It may suit Kockott’s in-your-face style, but his ambitions are less dramatic. ‘I don’t wish for an exciting season, I wish for a more consistent season,’ says Kockott, who sat out that pre-season match, with Arata and Fernandez sharing scrumhalf duties. ‘Consistency and a lot of belief and a lot of forward movement. Not so much micro-management and more vision, belief in what we can be good at, that will, hopefully, spark a better performing Castres side.’

Kockott sat out the Covid-19 lockdown in France. ‘We weren’t able to join the family back in South Africa, so we just made the most of it,’ he says. ’Usually you’re always up and down, around the place, playing, travelling. It was brilliant to sit back and reflect, and enjoy the time with my family.’

But now it’s back to business as Castres gear up for a new assault on the Top 14, and – with the quarter-finals of the Covid-delayed Challenge Cup lined up for September – two tilts at Europe. ‘It feels like for the first time in far too long that we’ve got a proper foundation in place so that we can get some real preseason quality – and quantity – that we don’t often get in France because of the short turnaround of the seasons.’

As his long goodbye begins, the challenge for old-head Kockott and the new-look Castres, is to turn that extra preparation into a more successful, more consistent, campaign.

*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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