GIVEN that it is a European quarter-final, there is an unusual lack of buzz around Edinburgh’s clash against Bordeaux-Begles at Stade Chaban-Delmas this weekend [Saturday at 12.30pm GMT].
A combination of factors – including injuries to key players in Richard Cockerill’s squad, the bad taste caused by the COVID-19 diagnosis for an academy player who broke the rules to attend a house party last weekend, the hangover from the team’s substandard performance against Ulster in their PRO14 play-off clash (the game that really mattered) against Ulster last time out, and the fact that this match is being played at an almost entirely empty stadium in Southwestern France – have all conspired to create a strangely subdued build-up to a contest which will offers Edinburgh the opportunity to finish the season in some style.
It is far from ideal but fortunately for Edinburgh, Cockerill is not the type of character to shrug his shoulders and curse his rotten luck, and he was in typically bullish form when he spoke about his expectations for the game ahead of his team flying out to Bordeaux yesterday morning.
“I’m too old and stupid to remember the games we won or lost, I just think it’s important to prove that we have the wherewithal to stay in games and make the right decisions at the right times,” he said.
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“I’ve spoken to the team this week about not worrying about the prize of a semi-final … just going [there] to play well … and trying to play the tactics that will win us a knockout game against a very good team away from home.
“The thing for me is that we’ve just to keep developing – clearly we weren’t as far down the road or mature enough against Ulster to do that, so we’ve got to learn again tomorrow in Bordeaux.
“If we win this it’ll be a huge win for us. We haven’t won a knockout game, as everyone keeps reminding me, [in the last three years]. Ulster is a game we should have won, 100 per cent. Against Bordeaux, you need to go there and give yourself a 50-50 chance, but we’ve got to be very good and get everything right because if we don’t they’re a team that will cause us huge problems.
“We’ve got a little bit of experience missing, but it’s a good team, and guys like Charlie Shiel get an opportunity to start a huge game. George Taylor has played very well for us anyway. James Johnstone has played a lot of rugby for us. It’s the best team we can field this weekend, so we go there with optimism, and we’re going there to play as well as we can and try and get a result.”
Despite being stretched across the backline due to the unavailability of powerhouse winger Duhan van der Merwe [groin], live-wire centre Mark Bennett [knee] and the squad’s two experienced scrum-halves in Nic Groom [groin] and Henry Pyrgos [concussion], Cockerill has not named Nathan Chamberlain in his match-day squad – although he is travelling as 24th man – opting instead to rely on full-back Blair Kinghorn as stand-off cover for Jaco van der Walt.
Edinburgh have been left particularly thin in this pivotal position due to a combination of Australian Jono Lance being denied a visa and a recruitment freeze in response to the financial hit of COVID-19. Chamberlain, who arrived during the summer as an academy player, was expected to play predominantly in Super6 during the coming season, but has been involved in the match-day squad for all three games back so far. However, Cockerill is reluctant to put too much pressure on the 20-year-old.
“At this point, the reality is that unless there is an injury to Jaco, I’m unlikely to use one of the younger 10s to come off the bench because they’re not quite ready yet at this level,” said the coach. “It is obviously a slight risk, but I think the risk of putting Blair there if we need to is worth taking.
“I don’t see any budget being available for extra players. It’s far from ideal but my job as a coach is to make sure that players come through at the right time, and they don’t play when they’re not quite ready.”
Looking ahead, it is clear that this is going to be an ongoing challenge for Cockerill and his coaching team, and that Chamberlain is going to have to be put in a position where he will either sink or swim at some point in the not so distant future.
“Jaco will be Scottish qualified in the autumn so he may well be away at some point with the Test team, and, in any case, he can’t play every week, but we’re at where we’re at,” he acknowledged. “We’ve got to keep working with Nathan and Cameron Scott, who’s even younger, because they are the two 10s that are in the Scotland under-20s squad meaning they are the best options out there at the moment.
“I’m not sure there are many teams that are playing at the level we’re playing where their genuine second choice is an academy player.”
Leaving Chamberlain out this week has allowed Cockerill to go with a 6-2 split on the bench. In the absence of Pyrgos, Groom and Roan Frostwick (another academy prospect who has a foot injury), Heriot’s Super6 player Dan Nutton is covering scrum-half, while Chris Dean covers the rest of the backline.
“Bordeaux are a very powerful forward pack and the bench reflects that,” explained Cockerill. “It’s going to be 25° or 26° so we are going to have to have cold towels every 10 minutes,” he continued. “With the attrition rate of the game and the way they play with a very big set of forwards, I just thought that having the opportunity to use a lock and two back-rowers along with the front-rowers [off the bench] was probably my thought process.
“Dan has been labouring on a farm for the past six months so he’s had a quick introduction to get back into playing rugby,” added Cockerill. “It’s not a perfect scenario, but he’s a good lad and has worked really hard and fitted in very well.
“Bordeaux are a big team who want to play the game on their terms, so the key for us is we want to keep the ball in play more than they do, we control the game and play good temp to make sure their big boys are running about and feeling the heat as much as we are.
“We’ll back our fitness, we’ve got a good pack, a good game-plan and we score tries.
“We have to be smart in how we play but we have to be ambitious when we have the ball, make them work and fatigue their big guys. But we have to do that in the right areas of the field. Get guys like Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham against their big guys in wider channels and see if we can expose them.”
Edinburgh (v Bordeaux-Begles at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, Saturday 12.30pm British time): B Kinghorn; D Graham, J Johnstone, G Taylor, D Hoyland; J van der Walt; C Shiel; P Schoeman, S McInally (captain), S Berghan, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie, H Watson, V Mata. Substitutes: M Willemse, R Sutherland, M McCallum, A Davidson, M Bradbury, N Haining, D Nutton, C Dean.
Bordeaux-Begles: N Ducuing; S Cordero, J-B Dubié, U Seuteni, B Lam; M Jalibert, Y Lesgourgues; J Poirot (captain), C Maynadier, V Cobilas, K Douglas, J Marais, M Diaby, G Petti, M Tauleigne. Substitutes: J Dweba, L Kaulashvili, B Tameifuna, C Cazeaux, C Woki, M Lucu, B Botica, P Uberti.
Referee: F Murphy (Ireland).