New Edinburgh Rugby signing Neil Cochrane was today challenged to use any opportunity at hooker as a springboard to representing Scotland in the 2015 World Cup.
The one-time Scotland age-group flanker and captain – he led the Under-21s to a famous victory over England at Northampton in 2005 – switched to hooker three years ago before moving from Bedford to London Wasps where he has played Aviva Premiership rugby this season.
Cochrane has signed a two-year-deal and will join Edinburgh in the summer as part of their rebuilding plans.
Almost at the outset, Cochrane came under the watchful eye of Colin Deans, the hooker in Scotland’s 1984 Grand Slam team who went on to lead his country at the inaugural World Cup as well as the Lions in a one-off fixture.
Deans, originally from Hawick, recalled today: “An old friend, Martin Hines, coaches Bedford and when I went along to a club lunch he approached me asking for a favour.
“I expected a donation or maybe some sponsorship but he told me ‘we have this young Scottish lad who could go a long way at hooker especially if you’d help him’.
“From the start, I was impressed by Neil’s attitude.
“He listens to every piece of advice and desperately wants to play international rugby.
“Two evenings each week we’d go along to a local pitch and work on throwing-in to the line-out; Neil would also soak up any information about scrummaging. When the move came to Wasps he continued to live in Bedford but would sleep over on a pal’s couch two nights each week when necessary.
“Contrast that with the fact he is coming back to Edinburgh where he will have family support in his hometown and think just how much room there is for further improvement with that aspect sorted?”
Northampton-based Deans was on the coaching staff of the local Saints when hooker Steve Thompson, later a World Cup winner with England, came on the scene. “I worked with Steve on his way up to international level at hooker and I have challenged Neil to reach the same standard.
“As a former back row he has such a lot going for him including the intelligence to know he wasn’t going to achieve his goal in that position so he backed himself to switch.
“That’s how much playing for Scotland means to him and if Edinburgh are wise they will take a leaf out of Bedford’s book and have him positioned at the back of the line-out on opposition throws because he retains enough speed to be quickly out in pursuit of the loose ball or the opposition carriers.
“Neil is very self critical but a leader too. If something in his team isn’t working he will spell it out to whoever is responsible.
“Not only are hours and hours of practice paying off for him but I shared his instinct for believing I could always have given more. Every game I played, whether for Hawick, Scotland or the Lions I doubted my right to be there; ultimately that is what drove me. There’s a lot of that in Neil.”
Cochrane, a former Boroughmuir schoolboy who also reached representative standard in youth cricket as a bowler with Carlton, said: “I’m an Edinburgh boy so it’s great to fulfil a life-long ambition to play for the team where I was born and grew up.
“It’s taken nine hard years of graft (he has also been at Doncaster and Rotherham) to prove my worth. I never gave up on earning a return to Edinburgh and I’m really excited to join.
“Wasps helped me prove that I was capable of playing at that level, so when Edinburgh came knocking at the door it was a dream come true.”
Meanwhile, Scotland name their team tomorrow for the opening Six Nations clash with Ireland in Dublin and Deans believes a heavy onus rests on Edinburgh prop Geoff Cross.
He reckons the injury to Euan Murray makes it likely Cross will get a chance at tight-head prop at some time on Sunday as Moray Low of Glasgow is the only tight-head available.
“Geoff has only had one start for Edinburgh this season due to the emphasis placed on South African influence at the scrum but he is a committed player who will have thankfully kept himself in top condition for any opportunity. It is important that whoever is chosen in each position provides a stable platform for when more Scottish youngsters, led by 19-year-old Jonny Gray, start coming through.
“As Scotland captain when the Hastings brothers arrived on the scene I also know the need to have faith in youth.
“They have got to be given the chance to fight their way through. The good news is there is emergent talent like Dougie Fife; less acceptable are the lack of opportunities but Neil Cochrane’s signing sends out the right signal at least.”