IT WAS back to earth with a bump yesterday for Edinburgh after their Champions Cup heroics, as a severely depleted squad began preparations for Friday’s PRO14 match against Zebre. With more than a full team away on Scotland duty and a fair few others out injured, Richard Cockerill had no more than the bare bones of the group that beat Toulon to work with.
The head coach will learn later today (Tuesday) which players will be released back to him from the Scotland camp, but he knows all the same that parts of the team who will take the field in Parma could well have little more than a passing resemblance to the one that performed so well against the French club three days ago. There has already been some good news for the coach, as Duhan van der Merwe is fit again after injury and Pierre Schoeman is available after serving a four-match suspension, but some places in Friday’s team – particularly in the pack – will have to go to players with little or no experience at this level.
“We’ve got 17 away at the moment,” Cockerill said yesterday. “We could do with some [being released by Scotland], because this morning we trained and we’ve got no second rows. Not one senior back-rower trained, because Vili Mata has got some bumps and bruises and everybody else is either injured or playing for Scotland.
“It’s a World Cup year. It’s an inflated [Scotland] squad, isn’t it?: 40-odd players in the squad to train. It makes it difficult, but it is what it is and there’s nothing you can do.
“All our tightheads are there, two hookers, looseheads, all our locks, all our back-rowers. You’d like to build on momentum. Circumstance to an extent has gone against us – if you have [the injured Fraser] Mackenzie and Lewis] Carmichael in the squad, you have two very good second-rows.”
Another player ruled out by injury is Magnus Bradbury, who was due to have a scan yesterday on the shoulder damage he sustained against Toulon. “I don’t think it will be good news,” Cockerill said of the back-rower.
Of those forwards who are fit and away with Scotland at present, the coach is most hopeful about Ross Ford, Luke Hamilton, one of the tightheads and Jamie Ritchie. With Glasgow Warriors’ Stuart Hogg injured, Cockerill expects his own Blair Kinghorn to be in Gregor Townsend’s squad to play Wales a week on Saturday, but the back division could still be bolstered by the return of the in-form Henry Pyrgos and Matt Scott.
Even if most or all of those Scotland players are released, however, Cockerill will have to rely on new blood such as Mungo Mason, who impressed in the pre-season friendly against Bath and is now part of the Scotland Sevens squad. Given how well the likes of James Johnstone and Darcy Graham have adapted since being called up from sevens, the coach expects the likes of Mason and the other newcomers to seize the chance to impress should it come.
“There’s some young guys who will get an opportunity, which is what we have to do – as Darcy has proved in the last three weeks. You get your opportunity, and you have to take it. We’ve just got to work with it – that’s part of the coaching ticket, isn’t it?
“Look, there’s lots of guys that have conversations about ‘When am I going to get my chance?’. Well, guys will now get an opportunity, won’t they? And that’s what the guys train for. Guys like [Callum] Hunter-Hill, he’s been desperate for an opportunity and he’ll get that opportunity this weekend. Who partners him in the second row, we’ll see.
“By the time we get to Friday we’ll have a decent enough team – it’s just we don’t get any time to prepare. We’ve tried coaching, that’s not always worked, so maybe just turning up and playing will be better for us.”
Having such a depleted squad after the inspired win against Toulon may have brought his players back down to earth, but Cockerill himself was never in any risk of getting carried away. His old team-mate Dean Richards reportedly put his credit card behind the bar on Sunday after his Newcastle side beat Montpellier in the same Champions Cup pool as Edinburgh, so Cockerill was asked if he had done the same.
“You know how our players behave when they drink,” he replied. “No. I don’t have a credit card. I’m trying to get one off [Edinburgh managing director] Jonny Petrie, but he’s a tight bugger.
“Do Scotsmen have credit cards? They never get them out their wallet.”
Progress on ‘Little Murrayfield’
On a more serious note, the coach hailed the granting of planning permission for the new mini-stadium within Murrayfield as a significant step forward for his team. Approval from Edinburgh City Council means the construction of the 7,800-seater arena can begin soon, with a scheduled completion date of early in the second half of next year.
Bearing in mind his present problems, Cockerill could not resist pointing out that the stadium could well open for business around the time of the World Cup, which would mean he would again be missing half his squad. But, as well as making that point, he was clearly pleased that another major element of his plan to change the culture both within and around the squad can now go ahead.
“We’re trying to build an infrastructure and a culture at the club that’s going to last for a long time. We had just over 7,000 at the weekend, and if that’s in our own stadium that is pretty much sold out, then hopefully that’s a much better atmosphere and we can create our own matchday experience and all the things that we’ve seen happen down in Glasgow.
“We can start in a World Cup year with half a team and we can play in a new stadium. But yeah, it’s great. We can have our own supporters’ village, and we can start to produce more money that we can invest in the squad and the infrastructure of what Edinburgh are about.”