AS Edinburgh prepare to welcome Bath to Meggetland tonight in the first of their two pre-season friendlies, Richard Cockerill has issued a timely reminder to his squad not to dwell on the achievements of the last campaign.
By getting into the PRO14 play-offs and qualifying for the Champions Cup, Edinburgh exceeded expectations in the head coach’s first season at the helm. This time round, expectations will be higher, and a thoroughly revamped squad will be expected to perform consistently from the start.
“We’ve had one half-good season in the last eight years,” Cockerill said after naming a squad of 35 for the match against the English side. “So we need to still be working hard. Our mindset should be the same: we have to work hard or even harder. I think we have a better squad, a bit more balance across the team from forwards to backs, but we’ve still got to work very, very hard to achieve anything.
“We need to hit the ground running: we want a good start to the season. We need to get our combinations working. We can’t start our players in round one: they have to play and get embedded in what we are doing.”
Stand-off Simon Hickey is one of several new signings who will wear Edinburgh colours for the first time, while there is a welcome return from injury of openside Hamish Watson. Eighteen-year-old Jack Blain is on the right wing, Matt Scott returns at centre, Pierre Schoeman starts at loosehead, and there are places on a very crowded bench for Pietro Ceccarelli, Henry Pyrgos, Juan Pablo Socino and Ross Ford.
Stuart McInally will captain the team, but Cockerill would not be drawn on whether that appointment will carry on into the new season. “We’ll announce our captaincy next week, but obviously Stuart’s a strong candidate, along with Fraser McKenzie, John Barclay,” the coach said. “There’s a few good leaders in there.”
McKenzie captained Edinburgh last season while Barclay led Scotland, so there is indeed leadership material in abundance. Pyrgos comes into that category too, having captained Glasgow and the national team, and Cockerill is confident the side will benefit significantly from the acquisition of the scrum-half.
“We were looking for a nine who would add strength to our squad,” said the coach, who recruited Pyrgos from Glasgow after Sam Hidalgo-Clyne left Edinburgh for Scarlets. “If that was Henry, brilliant. If it wasn’t, I was always going to push to go outside and go into the marketplace.
“He’s a Scotsman, he has a lot of experience, and he needed the opportunity to get back to where he would like to get to and compete for a first-choice spot for Scotland. He’s very committed to us, and I’m delighted to have his experience in the squad. He’s a perfect fit for us and will suit what we’re trying to do very, very well.
“I’m delighted to get Henry and delighted to get the support from the union. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, so if I think I can do something that will make this team better, I’ll be talking to my bosses and trying to get this team as good as it can be. That’s my job and that’s what I intend to keep doing.”
Apart from the long-term injured such as Barclay, most if not all of those players left out of this squad should be involved next Friday night, when Cockerill takes his squad to Newcastle. “Magnus has got a slight calf issue, which we’re looking after. Obviously there’s a few of those international players that were on tour who were looking after as well in arrangement with the Scottish national team. Damien Hoyland had surgery on his toe in the summer, so he’s still recovering from that.
“And Jaco van der Walt has got a slight hamstring issue which we’re looking after, but he’ll be fit for next week. We’re pretty much just getting everybody out on the field and knocking a bit of the rough stuff off.
“We had a strong second half to last season: we start again from scratch. We’ve got to keep working hard. We’ve still got a lot of guys missing out of that squad – there’s still probably 15 that would compete for places. Players like Luke Crosbie will come back in, Barclay, who’s injured, and the international boys that are being looked after.
“The reality is that I want to get my team ready for Ospreys away in three weeks’ time. That’s the key part – the only really important fixture.”
Edinburgh: (v Bath at Meggetland, Friday 7.30pm): T Brown; J Blain, J Johnstone, M Scott, D van der Merwe; S Hickey, S Kennedy; P Schoeman, S McInally, M McCallum, J Hodgson, B Toolis, J Ritchie, H Watson, V Mata. Substitutes: R Sutherland, D Cherry, J Stanley, D Marfo, P Ceccarelli, R Ford, C Hunter-Hill, C Atkinson, C Shiel, H Pyrgos, J Baggott, C Dean, D Fife, G Taylor, M Bennett, J Socino, R McLean, S Nayalo, L Hamilton, M Mason.
Bath: D Atkins; S Rokoduguni, M Wright, M Clark, J Wilson; F Burns, W Chudley; N Catt, J Walker, A Perenise, M Garvey, D Attwood, T Ellis, J Bayliss, Z Mercer. Substitutes: M van Vuuren, W Vaughan, S Nixon, V Delmas, E Stooke, L Douglas, M Reid, S Underhill, T Faletau, M Green, C Cook, R Priestland, J Roberts, J Willison, J Cokanasiga.