RICHARD Cockerill is certain that Edinburgh have made progress this season. Just how much progress, he believes, will be demonstrated on Saturday, when they take on Glasgow Warriors in the first of the season’s three 1872 Cup matches.
The Edinburgh head coach has no difficulty in admitting that on paper Glasgow are the better team, and thinks his side will have to be on top of their game if they are to stifle opponents who are 10 from 10 in the PRO14 this season. But he expects his players to do a lot more than just close Glasgow down, and that is reflected in a fairly attack-minded selection, especially in the back row where Bill Mata packs down alongside Cornell du Preez and Hamish Watson.
As expected, after resting many of his big names for last week’s 78-0 win over Krasny Yar, Cockerill has opted for experience and physical power. Dougie Fife and Duhan van der Merwe are on the wings, Jaco van der Walt returns from a short illness to partner Sam Hidalgo-Clyne at half-back, and in the front row Simon Berghan returns at tighthead. It is a team that Cockerill hopes will take the next step in their progress: from being able to get the better of lesser opposition – something they have done with increasing confidence this season – to working out how to prevail over more highly-rated sides.
“I think the way we’ve played this year, apart from a couple of games, we’ve been very good,” Cockerill said. “We’re developing our game; we’re now starting to put the weaker sides around us away relatively comfortably, which is a good sign. But now the test is we’ve played Leinster, Scarlets and Cheetahs away and come second. Glasgow is probably by far the best side we’ve played in the last two months, they’re unbeaten in the league, in Europe we’re not even in the same competition, so it’s the next step for us.
“We’re nowhere near the finished article where we’d like to be. That’s going to take a little bit of time, but we’ve had good improvement. We’ve got a good group of players who are confident in what they’re doing It will be a test for us. All I want to see from our group is that we’re very committed to how we want to play, we’re very committed physically, so whatever happens people will walk away going ‘There’s an Edinburgh team that actually care about what they’re doing and they’re actually trying to be as good as they can be’.
“We’ve got to make sure that our first-up tackles are very good. Our defence with Calum MacRae has been very good this year. We’ve got to be very physical on the gain line, and we’ve got to stop them playing with momentum. No different to them with us.
“They like to play with tempo, lots of quick taps – they’re a very ambitious team. So we’ve got to try and control that as much as possible when they have the ball.
“But conversely, we want to play ball in hand as well. It’s not just them who will be a threat ball in hand: we’ve got some good players – I think we’ve got a very good ball-carrying forward pack. We’ve certainly got some threat in that back line.
“I’m looking forward to seeing where Edinburgh’s at, because everybody’s got a bit of anticipation around the fixture, which is good. Everybody is waiting to see the strides that we’ve made – or haven’t made. We’ll see on Saturday.”
There is no room in the squad for Mark Bennett, despite Cockerill’s insistence earlier in the week that the former Glasgow player has a key role to play in bringing more ‘devil’ to Edinburgh. This match has come too early for the centre, who has been out of action since the spring because of cruciate damage, and it remains to be seen whether he will be involved in next week’s return at Scotstoun.
“We put him into consideration for selection, but Mark’s not played any rugby in 10 months, so I think the right thing for us and for him at this point is for him not to start, not to be involved. I don’t think he’s ready, because he hasn’t played, simple as that. I’ve got no problems around him as a player or as a person, it’s just that it’s a game that came too soon.”
Asked whether next week will also be too soon, the coach added: “I will see. Let’s see what Saturday brings. If the lads perform and do well, then it’s unlikely. If it’s a disaster, then we’ll see what happens.”
The attendance at Murrayfield should be well over 20,000 – around four times the capacity of Myreside. Nonetheless, if he has a say in the matter, Cockerill will opt to play the third game in this season’s series at the Watsonians ground, arguing that it is now Edinburgh’s true home, whereas many of the Warriors players feel very comfortable at the national stadium.
“Myreside is our home ground. If we want to build the culture of the club we need our home stadium. For me, personally, as many big games we play at Myreside and sell the place out the better.
“Purely from an Edinburgh point of view, we need to play as many games as possible at our home ground, Myreside, and make that as difficult a place to come as any other home ground. Murrayfield is a great stadium with a great pitch and great facilities, but it makes it comfortable for everyone, not just ourselves. But my job is to get the performance right so I’ll leave that to other people.”
Edinburgh (v Glasgow Warriors at Murrayfield, Saturday, 5.10pm): B Kinghorn; D Fife, J Johnstone, P Burleigh, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, S Hidalgo-Clyne; R Sutherland, S McInally (c), S Berghan, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, V Mata, H Watson, C du Preez. Substitutes: N Cochrane, M McCallum, M Shields, F McKenzie, J Ritchie, N Fowles, C Dean, D Graham.