RICHARD COCKERILL acknowledges that Edinburgh’s PRO14 play-off defeat to Ulster was a massive wake-up call to the whole squad – himself included – which highlighted that they are not as far along the track towards becoming a top rank team as they thought they were, but insists that there is no need to go back to the drawing board at this stage.
Speaking ahead of this Saturday’s European Challenge Cup quarter-final appointment against Bordeaux Begles at Stade Chaban-Delmas, the bullish coach said he was unconcerned about his team’s record of having lost all four knock-out matches played during his three years in the Scottish capital, highlighting instead that teams only really learn how to thrive under pressure through the often painful experience of trial and error.
“I’m not worried about it at all, because we’re playing good teams in those games,” he said. “Year one against Cardiff was a game we would have liked to have won, but we were still learning. The two Munster games were a shot to nothing because of the way we were developing as a team. This Ulster game, make no bones about it, was one we were good enough to win and expected to win – or at least expected to turn up and perform and do what we said we were going to do – which we didn’t.
“So, am I worried? No, not really. I just think, clearly, we’ve got to get better. We’re a team that’s never won a trophy. We’ve just got to keep working hard at our game and get over this hump.”
Cockerill added that Edinburgh don’t need to change their tactics or general approach for these do-or-die games, they just have to make better decisions and be more disciplined.
“We should play exactly the same,” he stated. “[But] if you are 12-0 up under your own sticks, do you need to force the game? I am still happy for us to counterattack off turnover ball, but if you run out of space you’ve got to transfer the pressure.
“Against a big French side away from home we can’t over play and waste our energy on something that does not work. Montpellier when we lost by a couple of points, Toulon away from home, tactically we were very good and frustrated the opposition and we ended up with positive results. Same with Montpellier at home.
“Maybe this weekend we won’t be favourites so we can just go and play as if anything is a bonus. Maybe we play with a little less fear and we don’t worry. Maybe against Ulster when we were expected to win and we got ourselves in front we, for want of a better word, shit the bed and we ended up with what we got.
“What people need to understand is that it was not just the last 20 minutes [against Ulster],” he continued. “There were parts of the first 60 minutes where we put ourselves under huge pressure. You end up using a lot of your energy defending when you don’t need to because you don’t manage field position well enough and you don’t make good decisions.
“At 12-0 we don’t need to be running the ball from our own line, kicking it randomly down the field and then having to defend again. We had a good defence set but kicked the ball away and then invited them to run it back at us and ask our forwards to work really hard for another 20 phases to get it back.
“Everything has a consequence. What you do in the first five minutes will have a consequence in the 65th minute.
“At 19-7 there was an opportunity to get back control of the game and we weren’t good enough to do that. Our leaders on the field needed to have calm heads. Under pressure we didn’t deliver.
“I think we invited them into our 22 on 15 occasions and they scored three tries, we went into their 22 on sevens occasions and scored three tries, so we’re giving them double the opportunities.”
“It is not one thing; it’s a combination of getting lots of little things wrong in a game and if you do that you end up keeping a team in the fight. Ulster worked hard but we gave them lots of leg-ups in the game to stay in it.
“Maybe we – including myself – thought we were a bit further down that line than we are. Clearly, when push came to shove, we didn’t deliver in the moment.”
The psychology of winning
Cockerill was asked if the team could do with external help to master the psychology of operating under pressure.
“We have sports psychologists available for guys who need them and we have used them already this year,” he replied. “Each to their own. I don’t have any thoughts either way. If players need that kind of help it is there for them to use and they feel they just have to get on the training field then they can do that. I’m open to anything that makes our guys better. Some guys like them some guys don’t. It is something we can happily use and do use.
Edinburgh have already played Bordeaux twice this season in the pool stage of the Challenge Cup, and although lockdown means there isn’t the same sort of continuity in personnel and form as you would normally expect in this situation, Cockerill reckons he and his players can take a lot away from those previous experiences (a 16-16 draw at Murrayfield in late-November and a 32-17 defeat away in mid-January).
“Bordeaux are a very good team, if Covid hadn’t come along, they probably would have been champions of France because they were the best team by far,” he surmised. “They do not have a lot of household names but they have a lot of very good players. They are well coached and organised and there are not that many French teams in the Top 14 like that. There is lots of talent and lots of money but not many sides as organised as their head coach Christophe Urios gets his team.
“But we are good enough to compete with them. The draw at home was a fair result and we did not probably understand how good this Bordeaux team is [at that point] and when we went away from home there were two or three key moments when they got in front of us on the scoreboard and overpowered us a little bit.
“There will be a small crowd there this weekend compared to the bigger one they had last weekend. I look at the weather forecast and it is going to be 28 degrees and sunny which is going to be a shock to some of us. It is going to be an interesting afternoon. It is going to be a test of character for us. A step up and we have to perform the way we say we are going to and we will learn something about ourselves.”
Plugging the gaps
Cockerill also confirmed that South African lock Andries Ferreira is a player he is looking at bringing to Edinburgh on a short-term deal, despite a recruitment freeze being in place throughout Scottish Rugby.
“We’re a little bit short in the second-row with injuries,” he explained. “Fraser McKenzie is out for several months with a dislocated shoulder, and we’ve got some issues with Lewis Carmichael with concussion, and my best guess would be that in a few weeks’ time we’re going to lose two locks [Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis] to international duty for eight weeks. So, we’re looking at some options there to give us some cover, and Ferreira is one of those options along with many others.
“It will be short-term to cover for the needs we have, and to look after our players. I don’t mind spending money, but the powers that be don’t want to spend any money for obvious reasons, and I get that – but we have to have players to play, don’t we?”