MARK Bennett will give Edinburgh an edge and help them escape the “polite public schoolboy” tag which still dogs them, Richard Cockerill believes. The head coach is sure he has already gone some way to toughening up the team since taking over in the summer, but believes that former Glasgow centre Bennett will accelerate the process.
Bennett is now fit again after a lengthy injury, and could make his Edinburgh debut against his old team in Saturday’s first 1872 Cup match of the season. Cockerill is certainly itching to get the 24-year-old involved, and thinks his fiercely competitive approach will help his new side adopt the right sort of fighting spirit against their rivals.
“Mark has been cleared from all his tests and his knees are good to go and he’s ready to play,” Cockerill said of Bennett, who agreed to join Edinburgh in February but has been out since April after injuring a cruciate ligament playing for Scotland against England. “Clearly he’s motivated to pull on an Edinburgh shirt for the first time. He’s very keen to play against his old team.
“If Mark is fit and ready to go he should play. He’s one of our marquee players for this season that unfortunately was injured very early. We just want his quality on the field, and the sooner the better. I will see what’s best for the team – whether he’s involved at all, we’ll see. He’s unlikely to start but we’ll see if he’s the right guy to have on the bench, having not played for 10 months.
“He’s played for Scotland, he’s played sevens for Great Britain, he has a good physical game. He’s got a very good edge about him. He’s not a polite Edinburgh public schoolboy, so that’s a good start. He’s got an edge about his game and he’s very forthright in his opinion on how things should be done. He contributes well to team meetings. He’ll be very good for us on and off the field.”
Cockerill selects several independently-educated players in his team every week, so he cannot be said to be blindly prejudiced against them. But, having given some thought to the reasons for Edinburgh’s chronic underachievement, he suggested that too sedate an upbringing could be responsible for the lack of killer instinct from which some players have suffered.
“It’s a nice place to be brought up,” he said. “My son is an Edinburgh-educated public schoolboy and he’s a pain in the arse. He’s a bit too nice, so I know all about it.
“It’s good to get a bit of devil in the team and Mark brings that. We’re starting to get a good balance of those guys in the starting team and that brings a bit of edge to us and a bit of fear to opponents, which is a good thing.”
Asked if there was still a soft underbelly in the Edinburgh side, Cockerill continued: “Oh, 100 per cent, yeah. There’s no getting away from that. There are still bits that show occasionally. We’re looking forward to the test against Glasgow, who are unbeaten in the league. We like to think we’re making strides of improvement, and this will be a real test for us. No side has beaten them in the PRO14 yet. They’ve had a tough time in Europe, but that’s a different level to anything we’ve played in.
“Losing to Leinster, Exeter and Montpellier back to back – there’s no disgrace in that. They were tight games and they were a little bit unlucky.
“Look, we’re not even in the main competition. It’s hard to compare, so we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. Glasgow have the majority of the Scotland team, certainly in the back line, so it will be a barometer of where we’re at. If we lose it won’t be a disaster; if we win it doesn’t mean we are where we want to be. It’s one game of rugby.
“It’s a big day for us as a club, we hope to get a bumper crowd, and I’m hoping Edinburgh Rugby take another step forward in what we’re trying to do. When I arrived, I wanted a team that people wanted to come and support. Now actually I think we’re getting to a place where people should come and support us, because we’re doing some good things and we’re playing a good brand of rugby, and we’ve got a group of players that are very committed to making that work.
“So I’d like to think that people will make the effort to come and watch, and support their city. Let’s have a proper rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow: it’s a healthy thing.”
By ‘proper rivalry’, Cockerill has in mind the keen competitive spirit that existed between his old club Leicester and their local rivals, Northampton. “The Leicester-Northampton derby is real hatred. It’s not made-up hatred: we really do hate Northampton. Sorry, they hate Northampton, and now I hate Glasgow.”
Besides pondering how or if to deploy Bennett, Cockerill also has a tough decision to make about Darcy Graham, who has excelled in the last two Challenge Cup matches but may give way to more experienced wingers on Saturday. Jaco van der Walt will play at stand-off after recovering from the illness that ruled him out of last week’s Krasny Yar game, but his fellow-stand-offs Jason Tovey and Duncan Weir are still ruled out. Loosehead prop Darryl Marfo will also miss out this week, and possibly next week’s return match at Scotstoun too, because of a back problem.
Meanwhile, lock forward Lewis Carmichael has become the latest player to pledge his immediate future to Edinburgh, signing a new two-year contract. The 22-year-old joins back-row forward Jamie Ritchie, who agreed a new deal on Monday that ties him to Edinburgh until the summer of 2021. Further re-signings are expected this week as Cockerill continues to try to get a settled squad in place for next season as early as possible.