Van der Walt the key man as Edinburgh stand on verge of Cup quarter-finals

Richard Cockerill. Image: ©Fotosport/David Gibson

COACHES usually have to wheel out their big guns for European games, but Richard Cockerill is in the happy position of being able to keep his powder dry this Friday as he looks ahead to Edinburgh’s double-header against Glasgow Warriors. He will continue to make the right noises about treating Krasny Yar with respect, but the reality is that, having seen his side score more than 70 points against the Russians in their first Challenge Cup match, he can afford to rest a lot of his leading players for a round of fixtures which could see Edinburgh book their place in the quarter-finals.

With a maximum 15 points from three games so far, Cockerill’s team will go up to 20 with two games remaining presuming they beat Krasny Yar with a bonus point. If London Irish beat Stade Francais without a bonus point on Saturday they will be on nine points in Pool 4 – as would the Frenchmen even if they picked up two bonuses in defeat.

“It’s the first time in my own experience as a coach where you can go into two European games and actually look after your squad, whereas normally you’d be balls-out, wouldn’t you, because they’re all really important games,” Cockerill accepted. “It’s a strange one that we have the luxury of looking after our squad and were able to bring our internationals out to South Africa and try to get as many league points as we could, knowing that we could rest guys in this European window.

“So that’s a little bit new, and we’ll look after our internationals knowing that we have two very big league games coming up, then the Kings, then two European games. Then they all disappear again for the Six Nations.

“It’s a good way to be able to manage them. It’s difficult for other sides – Glasgow have had a tough game at the weekend and you have to pick your best team. They have two weeks of a very physical, attritional rugby, whereas we don’t.”

Having said that, Cockerill felt he also had to refer to the inconsistencies that, while less prevalent this season, have dogged his team for years. “This is Edinburgh,” he insisted. “We would never say we should win.

“We’ll pick a strong side. A lot of the international guys will have the weekend off, but we’ll pick a good side that should be good enough to get what we need out of the game.”

The one position where Cockerill will have to husband his resources very carefully on Friday is stand-off: with Jason Tovey and Duncan Weir still on the injury list, Jaco van der Walt is the only recognised 10 available. Phil Burleigh will be first-choice back-up, as he was in the last two games, and Blair Kinghorn and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne can also stand in there, but the South African will start and hopefully exit unscathed early in the second half with the game in the bag.

After only three games for the team, Van der Walt already looks a settled member of the side – one, moreover, who has a settling influence on those around him thanks to his confidence going forward.

“Jaco has settled in pretty well,” his coach said. “He plays the game at the gain line pretty well. He’s adapting to the weather conditions, which are different to where he has been. He’s settled in very well and is playing very well.

“He’s played Super Rugby at a high level. He’s played at the Lions, who play a very good brand of rugby. He has a very good understanding of the game. We need to develop a game where we’re attacking the gain line more and more. We want to be more of a threat ball in hand. We’ve seen that in the last six to eight weeks. Jaco will help with that. Overall our mindset has been very good. That is how we want to play and that is how the game is going globally anyway.

“Jaco brings that little bit energy at the gain line; physically he’s very good and he’s a player that will give spark to the team. We’re already starting to see that straight off the bat. Hopefully the more he plays the more comfortable he feels and the better he will become.”

While Cockerill believes that Van der Walt needs some more playing time to get him fully up to speed for the two 1872 Cup games, the ideal is clearly to have the bonus point won and victory assured by half-time or at worst early in the second half. Then he can switch Burleigh to 10, and take off not only his starting stand-off but a few other first-choice players too.

“We will be mindful that we need to look after Jaco. Kinghorn has also been very important to us. We have to look after our squad. We need to concentrate on getting Friday done and then concentrating on the Glasgow games after that. If you lose focus you end up in a bit of bother.”

Darryl Marfo will not be back this weekend after being a late withdrawal from last week’s win over London Irish because of a tight back, but he should be clear to face the Warriors two days before Christmas. Mark Bennett will also sit out the Krasny Yar game, whereas originally Cockerill had hoped to give the centre his comeback from injury in that match. Now the coach must wait and decide whether one or other of the Glasgow games would be right for Bennett to make his return in.

“He won’t be quite right for this weekend,” Cockerill explained. “There’s no set-back – he’s just a tiny bit behind in one of the things he needs to reach. He’s not ready to be signed off to play, but has done 95 per cent of what he has to do. He may well be available for the Glasgow games; having not played for a year, we’ll see.”


About Stuart Bathgate 1363 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.