SOME of Edinburgh’s recent forays into Europe have provided welcome relief from the rigours of the league, with success in the Champions or Challenge Cups often contrasting sharply with the team’s underachievement in their bread-and-butter competition. But Richard Cockerill does not see why things have to be that way, and believes that a decent showing in their Challenge Cup pool can help inspire his team to greater things in the PRO14.
After rounding off their first block of league games with a win over Zebre last weekend, Edinburgh start their European campaign with a visit to London Irish on Saturday before travelling to Moscow for an intriguing encounter with Krasny Yar. Cockerill has been in his post long enough now to realise there are no guarantees where Edinburgh are concerned, but he believes there is at least a decent chance to win both games – and if that happens, the head coach thinks his side can grow significantly in confidence
“I think it’s a good competition for this team, because they’ve done well in it,” Cockerill said. “Notwithstanding it’s still the second tier of Europe and we’re all striving to be in the main competition. Clearly for this club, one-off games have suited them and that’s why they’ve been better in the cup competitions.
“But I’m striving for consistency across the board. It’s a fresh competition and a challenge for us, a very short competition in number of games and as a result easy for us to target games and try and get out of the pool.
“I think it’s important we get a good start to the competition, because if we can get a positive result on Saturday then we go to Russia against Krasny Yar, which you’d like to think you’d win. And then, suddenly, you can be in a really good strong position after two rounds with two home games to come in the next two. And Stade Francais in the last two weekends.
“Certainly, if you get a positive start and win at London Irish, it sets you up for a positive tournament. Then you start to look at trying to get out of the pool stages.
“For us, it’s going there and not playing within ourselves, which we probably did a little bit this weekend – this team, with pressurised games, don’t seem to be able to play freely in that environment yet. We’re still working on that.
“But I think we can go to London Irish with some optimism. And probably the pressure’s off us a little bit.”
By his own admission, Cockerill is still learning about his squad, as individuals and as a collective. But, while being relatively pleased with a record in the PRO14 that has seen them win three and lose three of their first half-dozen games, he knows that reaching and then staying at a far higher level of achievement has to be the key aim for the rest of the season.
“Next time we go into the league it’s going to be a big two weeks, because we have Treviso away, who’ve already beaten us, and then we play Ospreys at home, then a bit of a break for the internationals and then we go to South Africa. Certainly the next four league games are very important to us and where we sit in the final shake-up.
“And there’s a lot of rugby to be played through the autumn and Six Nations when guys are missing. You just don’t know – after six games the teams are probably sat where they may well sit at the end. You just don’t know, when you have players picked for internationals, who will be missing from us and who won’t. You might be lucky and just have a few.
“I don’t know where we are at the moment – we’re still a work in progress and we have a lot to prove about our consistency. But that’s the challenge; it’s not going to be fixed very quickly but I think we’re turning the corner.”
The challenge on Saturday will come from a London Irish side intent on shrugging off their own indifferent start to the season. One win from six starts has left them second bottom of the Premiership, ahead only of Worcester, and Cockerill expects them to play in a less inhibited style than they have shown of late.
“Clearly they’ve started games very poorly in the Premiership to this point, and finished games very strongly. We’re probably the other way around, so that will be interesting. It all depends how seriously they take it, how strong a team they put out. They’ll probably play with less pressure than normal. They’re fighting to stay up even though it’s early in the Premiership, their focus will probably be on Premiership points more than Europe. For us, we have the luxury we don’t have relegation and that takes the pressure off us. We have less pressure in a different competition, so we can just go out and play. If anything takes preference, it’ll be the league, consistency in that competition is the key for us.
“We’re going there to win, 100 per cent. If we can get two positive results in these first two games it puts you in a really strong position with two home games to come. You would hope to get a result in Moscow, but it’s Edinburgh, who knows?
“We know we’re good enough to raise our game against London Irish and win: we’ve done it before. They had good results against Premiership and Top 14 sides last year. We’re certainly able to do it – it’s just a question of getting it right on the day.”
Blair Kinghorn is expected to sit Saturday’s game out after cutting a knee in the win over Zebre, but James Johnstone, who took a head knock against the Italians, is “recovering well”, according to the coach.