FRASER MCKENZIE will make his 100th appearance for Edinburgh when he leads the capital outfit into their European Challenge Cup quarter-final clash against Cardiff Blues at Murrayfield this [Saturday] afternoon.
The 30-year-old was made the team’s on-field leader last October in the aftermath of Magnus Bradbury’s demotion following a late-night altercation with a pavement in Edinburgh’s city centre – and has led the side superbly as they have built up an impressive head of steam to reach the last four of the Challenge Cup and get within touching distance of qualification of the PRO14 play-offs. A win against Ulster next weekend will secure the required top three finish in Conference B.
Richard Cockerill made it clear yesterday that he is now a big fan of the 30-year-old second-row – but also revealed that his first impression of McKenzie last summer was that he was part of the deadwood which needed to be moved on as soon as possible if the club was to escape the crippling grip of apathy which had constrained progress for far too long.
“I met him for the first time when I did one-on-ones with the whole squad [after arriving at the club last summer] and he looked like a retired footballer. He was in t-shirt and shorts, had a really good suntan and was slightly overweight. He was just in pretty shit nick,” said the no-nonsense coach.
Cockerill was asked what he had said to McKenzie at that point, and explained: “Same as to everybody: ‘You’ve got to get yourself fit if you want to be part of it. It’s a simple as that.’”
“I think I said: ‘How long have you got on your contract?’ And he said: ‘Two years’. And I said: ‘Oooooooh.’”
“I said to him in that meeting: ‘You look like a retired footballer.’ And he went: ‘Oh, okay’. But doing something about it is the key. He has worked really hard, got himself in good nick and played very, very well.”
“I want to reward guys who play well for the team. I don’t mind whether they are an international, a club player or whatever background they have come from – I see what I see, and I pick on what I see.”
“So, he’s been great along with the majority of other guys. That’s why I’m confident around the games we’ve played in the last few weeks because the group has worked hard and the things that don’t require talent we do very well. A lot of that is effort and we made the choice to make the effort.”
“I thought we played poorly last week but we were good enough to stay in the game because we make the effort and the right choices. That’s what’s getting us results.”
My kinda guy
Dunfermline-born McKenzie signed his first contract with Edinburgh in 2008. He moved to Sale Sharks in 2011 and then had a spell with Newcastle Falcons during the 2013-14 season, before returning to the Scottish capital four years ago – although a combination of injuries, poor form and the idiosyncrasies of the selection process under Alan Solomons meant he spent much of his time as a fringe player during three campaigns until Cockerill arrived on the scene.
He is clearly Cockerill’s kind of character: committed, hard-working, honest and realistic about his own and his team’s strengths and limitations.
“Fraser – and I have said this to him so he won’t be surprised to hear it – is not a world class player, but he is a very, very good club player. He leads very well by what he says, and he delivers exactly what he says,” explained the coach.
“All you want is honesty and he’s a good honest man. He’s bought into everything we’re doing along with 99 per cent of everyone else. And he’s played bloody well, there’s no denying he’s been one of our better players – so fair play to him.”
“He gives everything. When he has been captain he has been great. Last week when he was left out he was good and he still led. He worked even harder at training than before.”
“He’s a tough fellow, he’s no nonsense, he says it how it is and has played very well, so I was very pleased with what he has delivered even before I made him captain.
“He’s not particularly polite around the airs and graces. It’s just: ‘Here’s what we need to do, let’s go and do it’. He doesn’t talk much nonsense and he’s quite abrasive. Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it, and he says it very well.”
“He’s surprised me because when I first arrived I thought he might be one of the first blokes leaving.”