AFTER years of depressing under-achievement, it was almost inevitable that the first green-shoots of recovery at Edinburgh would elicit a wave of excitement out of proportion with the reality of what has been achieved.
There is no doubt that Edinburgh during the second half of last season were fitter, better organised, more highly-motivated and in possession of a self-belief which had been in shockingly short supply before Richard Cockerill rocked up in the capital in July 2017.
However, in the final reckoning, they were still only the fifth best performing team in the PRO14 last season, and reached the quarter-final of the Challenge Cup – Europe’s second tier competition – before slumping to a pretty flat defeat to Cardiff Blues at home.
Kelly and McDowall add to Warriors midfield options
New captain McInally personifies the spirit of Edinburgh, says Cockerill
Callum Gibbins named as captain of Guinness PRO14 Dream Team
The Master Builder
Supporters of the club are perfectly entitled to look forward with a degree of optimism for the first time in several years, but Cockerill – who spent 23-years as a player and coach with English giants Leicester Tigers, where success was demanded rather than hoped for – is at pains to point out that the club has achieved nothing tangible yet.
“It’s been an interesting one for me because over the summer everybody kept congratulating me, but we were fifth and we lost in the quarter-finals and that would have got me the sack at Leicester, in fact I got sacked for less at Leicester,” he ruefully reflects.
“So, it was a big improvement for us. We’re a lot better side than we have been, but we want to keep building on that. We’ve had a lot of change on the playing front, so we need time to settle with that.
“If you remember back to this time of year, at the start of the season we were average at times, so we just need to keep building again. For us to be in the play-offs again we’ve got to be better than Ulster, Scarlets and Leinster [who are alongside Edinburgh in Conference B of the coming PRO14 campaign] which is a big ask.
“We’ve got to work hard with what we think is a slightly better squad and we’ve got to go into every game and try to win.
“We’ve just got to keep working and improving, it’s as simple as that,” he adds. “We’re a year into trying to re-invent Edinburgh and what we’re about. We’ve had one half decent season in eight seasons, so we think we’ve got a better balance to our squad but now we’ve just got to work harder and it’s going to be more difficult because sides won’t take us for granted and there’s a little bit of expectation about what we can deliver, so we need to make sure we’re better again.”
Fighting a battle on two fronts
Edinburgh have been pretty active on the recruitment front this summer, with John Barclay [injured until the end of the calendar year], Henry Pyrgos, Matt Scott, Luke Hamilton, Simon Hickey, Juan Pablos Socino, Pietro Ceccarelli and Pierre Schoeman among the 13 new faces added to the squad, but Cockerill points out that the demands of playing in the Champions Cup this year means that more strength in depth in the squad is vital if the team is going to be competitive in both the league and in Europe.
“Our games are going to get harder in Europe rather than easier like it was last year,” he reasons. “We start with Montpellier away and Toulon at home, two of the best club teams in world rugby. It’s a great test for us, we’ve got to look forward to that, but our bread and butter’s going to be the league and we’ve got to be consistent and we’re going to go into every European game seeing where we’re at … and what a great opportunity for us to go and test ourselves against the very best.
“A lot of those European ties are off the back of Autumn or Six Nations Tests as well, so guys will come off of that and have a week off then straight into Europe, so there’s different challenges. Mentally and physically it’s going to be tougher for us. So, it’ll be interesting to see how we develop to that point.
“Our players are going to have to learn that they’re going to have to play a big league game the week before, and then they’re going to have to go to Montpellier and play a massive game, and then they’re going to have to play Toulon at home and play a massive game and back it up. But, actually, that’s good for them because that’s what real rugby teams do, and if you’re in a World Cup you’ve got to back big game up with big game, followed by big game. Probably, historically, from Edinburgh’s point of view we’ve not been overly good at that, so it’s going to be a good learning curve for some of our guys.
“I just keep it realistic. I’ve been asked already about whether the minimum is play-offs in the PRO14? Well, I know for sure that Leinster, Ulster and Scarlets will spend a lot more money than we do, historically they’ve got stronger foundations than we’ve got, so we’ve got to keep working at that,” he continues.
“I want to be in the play-offs because I want us to have a crack at it. We’re in Europe, which is a different dynamic against three very good teams, so the attrition in our squad is going to be harder for obvious reasons – we’re going to have to back up league games with European games.”
A diplomatic bulldog
Cockerill fashioned himself as the archetypal English bulldog during his Leicester days, but has proven during his year north of the Border that he is a more nuanced character than the stereotype suggests. Asked if he thinks the Scottish game is not respected back in his homeland, he is compellingly diplomatic.
“Probably a little bit, but you have to look at the reality,” he said. “Take Edinburgh as an example, it’s the first time we have ever qualified for it [the Champions Cup] in years and the reality is that Glasgow won one game out of six last year, so if you look at the results with the big boys then that’s the reality.
“Edinburgh have got to a semi-final once, Glasgow have got to a quarter-final once, so that’s probably where it comes from. I would agree with you that the English sides probably don’t respect the Scottish sides as much as they should. Having been here I know the quality of the players in the country, but there’s two teams and to keep that competitive and keep that driving forward is always going to be difficult.”
And with that in mind, he reckons the PRO14 – which kicks off for Edinburgh this season with a trip to Swansea to take on the Ospreys next Friday night – is the ideal vehicle for the game in smaller countries of limited player depth.
“I just think it’s slightly different because all of the Pro14 teams are very national team centric for obvious reasons, so there’s a lot put on that,” said Cockerill. “But Leinster are European champions, so clearly we’ve got a strong competition that produces strong teams.
“We don’t have the stellar signings that the English league or the French league has but I don’t think that makes it any better or worse, I think it’s just the context is a little bit different. There’s no relegation in the PRO14 which I think helps because you have time to develop a playing style. If you’re in the bottom four of the [English] Premiership or the [French] Top 14 you might play a certain way just not to lose, so it’s harder to develop your game and develop your team.
“I think it measures up equally. Certainly, the best sides in the PRO14 would more than compete in the Premiership without a doubt. It’s just harder in the Premiership and the Top 14 because there’s always that divide between the club sides and the national team – they’re very different agendas – whereas most of the time in the PRO14 there’s a very different balance between the club and the national side. It’s based on trying to get the national team as good as it can be.”
Tennent’s Premiership pro player draft for 2018-19 season unveiled