EDINBURGH’s game against Zebre tonight may be their last PRO14 outing before attention turns to the Challenge Cup, but Richard Cockerill is not looking at it as either a one-off fixture or merely as preparation for Europe. Instead, the head coach regards the Myreside match as the start of a run of very winnable games for his side: games which, if the results do go their way, could propel them into contention for the end-of-season play-offs.
After the pool matches against London Irish and Krasny Yar, Edinburgh return to league action at the end of the month with a trip to Treviso, where they will be seeking revenge for their recent home defeat by Benetton. They are then home to the Ospreys before they head to South Africa, where they meet first the Cheetahs and then the Southern Kings.
Winning both games against the league newcomers could be a tall order, but Cockerill is surely correct to target the ones before that trip as matches which have the potential to transform his team from also-rans into genuine competitors. “Tomorrow night’s a very important game from a club point of view,” the coach said. “Because the next three games in the league are ones that if we play to our potential there’s no reason we can’t win them.”
Cockerill has made five changes to the team that began last week’s loss in Leinster, with the two alterations in the backs seeing Blair Kinghorn return at No 15 and Nathan Fowles start at scrum-half instead of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. In the pack, Willem Nel returns to the front row, Ben Toolis to the second, and club captain Magnus Bradbury to the back row. There is a welcome return to the bench for loosehead prop Allan Dell, who has been out with a knee injury, while substitute back-row forward Luke Crosbie is in line for a first start, but opensides John Hardie and Hamish Watson miss out with head and shoulder knocks respectively.
Kinghorn has received a lot of praise since breaking into the Edinburgh side, and clearly has serious potential, but Cockerill believes he is not yet ready to make the step up to Test rugby, arguing that he first has to eradicate the errors in his game. “No, I don’t think he’s consistent enough to do that,” he said when asked if his full-back was ready for international rugby. “He shows some very, very good things in attack and he’s got a huge amount of potential, but I think the errors in his game at Test level aren’t acceptable at the moment.
“He’s a very good young player with a lot of potential, but I think for him to step to the next level he needs to be more consistent at club level – which is not making that blunder once a game, which unfortunately he does tend to do at times.
“It’s a balance of making sure he understands what he needs to improve and some parts that needs to happen quickly, but also developing the player, because that’s part and parcel of my job. He’s got a huge amount of ability that he needs to harness and use.
“He’ll come through, and I’ve no doubt that if Blair works hard on his game that he can certainly push on and be an international player and compete with [Stuart] Hogg for that full-back spot. However he’s a young man that’s still learning, and he needs to understand that parts of his game have to improve if he wants to step up. That’s just normal.”
The Parma-based team show only one change from the line-up that began their victory over Ulster last week, on the right wing where Giovanbattista Venditti returns. Having also beaten the Southern Kings in their previous match, the Italians are in a confident frame of mind, and can be expected to probe their hosts patiently for any weaknesses – psychological as well as physical.
“We just need to perform as well as we know that we can,” Cockerill added. “They’ve had a couple of very good results and are playing very much ball in hand and taking lots of risks, and we have to be very solid defensively and be very good when we have the ball. I was sent a stat that the last seven times these two teams have played, they’ve won four of the seven, so clearly there is not as big a gap as some think.”
Given that analysis, Cockerill will surely not be worried if there is not that big a gap between the teams at full-time – provided, that is, his own side end up on the right side of it.
Edinburgh (v Zebre at Myreside, Friday 6 October, 7.35pm): B Kinghorn; D Fife, J Johnstone, P Burleigh, T Brown; J Tovey, N Fowles; D Marfo, S McInally, W Nel, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, J Ritchie, C du Preez. Substitutes: R Ford, A Dell, S Berghan, A Bresler, L Crosbie, S Hidalgo-Clyne, D Weir, R Fruean.
Zebre: M Minozzi; M Bellini, T Boni, T Castello, G Venditti; C Canna, M Violi; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, D Chistolini, D Sisi, G Biagi, G Licata, J Meyer, R Giammarioli. Substitutes: L Luus, A de Marchi, E Bello, L Krumow, D Minnie, G Palazzini, S Bordoli, C Gaffney.