AT the end of November, Richard Cockerill rested almost all of his front-line players for Edinburgh’s trip to Cork to take on Munster. The logic behind that team selection was not hard to fathom. The internationalists in his squad were due a break after being involved in Scotland’s gruelling November Test schedule, plus this was a match which nobody was really banking on Edinburgh winning and there were four significantly more important games coming up during December to keep his players fresh for (in the shape of double-headers against Newcastle Falcons and Glasgow Warriors, in the Champions Cup and Guinness PRO14, respectively).
It will be interesting to see if the coach adopts the same approach this Saturday night when the Isuzu Southern Kings arrive at Murrayfield. On the one hand, 13 players started all four games last month, and with the final push towards qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup getting under way with a trip to Toulon next Saturday, Cockerill will undoubtedly be tempted to give his main men a chance to recharge their batteries. But, on the flip side, this is a game Edinburgh really must win against the bottom team in Conference B.
The South African’s have already shown this season that they are capable of causing an upset when they derailed Glasgow Warriors back in September, and although they have not won since then they have remained competitive.
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Edinburgh must view this as a golden opportunity to bag five vital league points as they look to secure a spot in the end-of-season play-offs. Cockerill’s men are currently in a four-way shoot-out with Ulster, Benetton and Scarlets to grab the two remaining play-off slots in Conference B behind runaway leaders Leinster, and every single result is going to be crucial.
For all the positivity surrounding Edinburgh’s recent form, there is still a huge doubt about whether the capital outfit has the strength in depth to be competitive in both Europe and the PRO14 as we move into the business end of the season, especially behind the scrum.
While Dave Rennie in the west can afford to change six or seven players per week without a significant drop-off in the level of experience and ability across the squad, the fact that Cockerill used only 25 players to sustain four 23-man squads during November tells its own story.
Loose-head prop Pierre Schoeman started three out of the four games during December and came off the bench for the final 34-minutes of the victory down in Newcastle, so he is one of the players likely to be given a breather this weekend, especially as his position is one where there is genuine depth, with Scotland internationalists Allan Dell, Rory Sutherland and Darryl Marfo all chomping at the bit for a chance to stake a claim for the number one jersey.
“I fancy another game, but one has to be honest about it as well … look at the two Newcastle games and two Glasgow games, that’s a lot of tough rugby,” Schoeman acknowledged. “It does not get easier now, because now teams are going to come for us. Looking to the future with the European Cup – you can’t go up and down, you have to maintain a good solid performance week-in and week-out, so we need to make sure everyone in the squad is in the best shape possible.”
Building pace after slow start
After a frustrating start to his Edinburgh career – which included a sending off and four-week suspension for connecting his forearm with Dan Leavy’s head whilst carrying the ball into contact against Leinster at the end of September – the 24-year-old has established himself as a key member of the side, which he underlined with his man-of-the-match performance against Glasgow last weekend.
“It was about time,” he smiled. “I have been looking at the team of the week since I got here. After being side-lined a wee bit, I knew I had to get back into the team and perform. I had to earn my spot and to earn your spot, you have to work hard.”
Schoeman added that he believes the day-to-day culture of the squad is helping him reach his potential as a player.
“I am enjoying learning from the guys here, especially Stuart McInally and WP Nel, it is a big honour playing with them,” he explained. “I learn a lot from all the boys, especially at training. Guys like Allan Dell, Rory Sutherland, even Darryl Marfo – all Scottish capped players. It is enjoyable prepping week-in, week-out. You don’t always look at that but that is what helps a lot on game day.
“It is a very professional club on and off the field, which Cockers is driving strongly. Discipline is key from the management right through to the guys cleaning at Murrayfield, it is a big part in our character set-up. We reap the fruit on the field.
“Four wins, two of them away from home, during the last month – that counts for a lot. It shows some character and shows the building blocks we are putting in place are coming through the system.”
McCallum signs on for two more years
Meanwhile, tight-head prop Murray McCallum has put pen to paper on a two-year contract extension, keeping him at the club until at least 2021.
The 22-year-old, who is a product of Dunfermline RFC and Strathallan School, was a stalwart of the Scotland Under-20s programme in 2016 and joined Edinburgh in the summer of 2017 from Premiership side Heriot’s, having already made his debut from the club as a replacement in the 45-10 victory over Benetton in October 2016.
He has so far made 46 appearances for the capital side, scoring four tries in the process, and picked up his first international cap off the bench in Scotland’s defeat to Wales in Cardiff at the start of the last Six Nations. He also featured twice off the bench against Canada and the USA during the summer.
“I’m delighted to be able to extend my stay in Edinburgh. We have a great group of boys here and there’s a brilliant buzz around the club at the moment,” said McCallum. “We’re going in a really positive direction, both on and off the pitch, and I’m really pleased to be a part of that for another two years.”
Cockerill added: “We’re really happy to have extended Murray’s stay at the club. He’s a strong, developing prop with a big future in the game. It’s great that he’s chosen to be a part of what is already being built here in Edinburgh.”
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