RICHARD COCKERILL says that his Edinburgh team will have to play better than they have done since he arrived in the Scottish capital at the start of last season if they are to emerge with credit from the first tranche of matches in this year’s European Heineken Champions Cup campaign, against Montpellier away this Saturday and Toulon at Murrayfield seven days later.
The former England hooker’s first season in charge of the club was a resounding success, with the team finding a sense of purpose which had been conspicuously absent for several years previously to reach the play-offs of the Guinness PRO14 and the quarter-final of the second-tier European Challenge Cup, before falling to Munster and Cardiff Blues respectively.
But they are now operating in the fast lane of the European game and are about to get a true understanding of exactly how good they really are compared to the very best the continent has to offer.
“On Saturday, when we finish, we’ll have played against one of the biggest teams in Europe and we’ll see where we benchmark,” said Cockerill, “Regardless of who they have got or haven’t got [available for the match], their pockets are a lot deeper than ours and that buys quality, that’s the reality of it.
Edinburgh come into these two matches on the back of two bonus-point wins in the PRO14, but that was against a couple of the more beatable teams in the league in Benetton and the Cheetahs, both at home, and Cockerill is the first to acknowledge that performance levels will have to improve significantly to get anything tangible out of the next fortnight.
“Our form’s a little bit mixed,” he said. “We’ve got to be ruthless about managing the game and the scoreboard and we’ve not done that well enough.
“That’s part of our development as a team and we’ve got to start learning that quicker. We’ve not played anyone near the quality of the team we’re playing at the weekend. They’re sitting fourth in the T14 since yesterday and that’s a pretty tough league. We’ll go and enjoy ourselves and play with a smile on our faces, give it our best shot.
“We’re not going to force them into an arm wrestle because that’s going to make it tough for us,” he continued. “Our ball in play in our comp [the PRO14] is over 40 minutes, theirs is just over 30 minutes, so if we can keep lots of ball, get quick ball and put them under pressure we’ll create opportunities.
“Let them control the ball, give it away cheaply, kick the ball down the throats of the big men in wide channels we’ll get punished.”
“If we’re to win the next two weeks we have to play better than we’ve done the last 15 months. We’re not playing a semi-motivated Stade Francais or London Irish [in the Challenge Cup], these are two big teams in the next two weeks who’d like to think they can win the competition.
The theme of yesterday’s press conference was that Edinburgh have nothing to lose and everything to gain from being drawn against two French super-powers in their return to the top tier of European competition for the first time since 2013-14.
“It’s important that we consistently compete in this competition because the way to develop is to play against the best and do well,” said Cockerill. “Glasgow have done it for a number of years and it’s a tough competition to even get out of your group. These are the competitions you’ve got to be in to develop your level.
“It’s a win-win for us as a team. If we go in and surprise people then I’ll be surprised myself, and if we lose I suppose we’re supposed to. I just hope we play our best game, we physically turn up and we enjoy the experience which isn’t getting smashed on the score-board.
Cockerill reported only one new injury concern from Friday night’s home victory over the Cheetahs in winger Duhan van der Merwe, who is suffering with a knee injury and is 50-50 to be fit for the weekend.
Regardless of whether the powerful South African makes it in time, Cockerill indicated that homegrown Darcy Graham – another winger – has earned his right to be amongst the starters through his performance at the weekend. That could pitch the diminutive 21-year-old matched up against the mighty frame of Nemani Nadolo, who Cockerill observed is “bigger than anyone in our forward pack”.
“Darcy played really well and if people play well they deserve to get picked,’ stated the coach. “So, at this point, he will play on Saturday. I’m not sure I could sit down with him and justify not picking him because he played really well on Friday. If you play well you should stay in the team, simple as that.
“If he’s playing against someone considerably bigger than him then he’s got to deal with that because at the moment he’s one of our best wingers.”