EDINBURGH could go into the play-off places in PRO14 Conference B tonight if they beat Ulster in Belfast – and Richard Cockerill has assembled just about his biggest available squad to attempt the task. The fact his team are in contention so far up the table at this stage of the campaign is one indication of just how far the coach has taken them in his first season in charge, and although Cockerill was careful to play down expectations, his enthusiasm for the forthcoming battle was evident.
“They’ve brought some good players back in this week, and they’re at home and it will be sold out and there will be a big atmosphere, but it’s a really good place for us to go and test ourselves,” he said. “We’re in the mix. We’ve earned the right to be pushing for a play-off.
“If we lose, the play-off hopes aren’t all done. But if we win, it puts us in the box seat. It’ll be a really good test for us and we’re looking forward to it.
“They play very direct, they carry very hard, they’re a combative team. We have to be strong to stay in the battle and if we do that then we can possibly get something out of it.”
Cockerill has always been honest and realistic enough to suggest that this season a fourth-place finish is probably the best his team will do, and of course that position also comes with a play-off attached – a match against the team who finish fourth in Conference A, with the last place in next season’s Champions Cup at stake. But needless to say, he will not complain if his squad exceed his implicit target and finish third, and his selection for this evening’s match certainly suggests he is going all out to make a statement.
That back row, in particular, looks very competitive, with Bill Mata at blindside, Cornell du Preez at No 8, and John Hardie at openside in his first start since returning from a three-month suspension.“It’s going to be a tough game, so we’ve picked a big physical back row to start the game,” the coach continued.
“John Hardie’s got lots to prove. John is working hard, he’s fit, he’s fresh, and he’s desperate to get out on the field and prove how good he is. Delighted to have him back – he’ll give us that hard edge.
“I think he just wants to get out there and play. He’s short of match fitness, but he gives you what he gives you. He’s a good ball carrier for a smallish man, and he’s very good in the tackle and over the ball, which we’ll need. I’m looking forward to seeing how he goes..
“Cornell’s got a lot to prove, having been dropped from the national team. He’s worked hard in the group since he came back in.
“He was obviously disappointed with how things went in Cardiff. He has an opportunity to lead the way physically, and we’re going to need his best game out on the field, because they’re a tough physical team who are direct.
“And Vili Mata has been on good form. So I’m hoping that will translate into a top performance from them all.”
Winger Jason Harries, out of favour for some time, is another selection made due to bulk. The Welshman has excelled in some of his BT Premiership performances for Watsonians, particularly when coming into the midfield as a strike runner, and it is his ability to burst his way through defences that has seen him preferred to Darcy Graham.
“Darcy wasn’t as good physically as I’d have liked last week, and Jason is a big man and a physical player so he gets the chance to show what he can do,” Cockerill added.
Edinburgh (v Ulster at Kingspan Stadium, tonight [Friday], 7.35pm): D Fife; J Harries, M Bennett, C Dean, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, S Hidalgo-Clyne; J Lay, N Cochrane, M McCallum, F McKenzie, L Carmichael, W Mata, J Hardie, C du Preez. Substitutes: C Fenton, R Sutherland, E Millar-Mills, M Bradbury, L Crosbie, N Fowles, D Weir, G Bryce.
Ulster: L Ludik; C Gilroy, L Marshall, S McCloskey, T Bowe; J McPhillips, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, W Herbst, A O’Connor, K Treadwell, M Rea, N Timoney, J Deysel. Substitutes: J Andrew, K McCall, R Ah You, M Dalton, C Henry, J Stewart, D Cave, D Busby.