EDINBURGH head coach Richard Cockerill has changed more than half his team for today’s Challenge Cup opener against London Irish, but has insisted his priority is to win the game rather than merely resting key men.
Every year on the eve of European competition the same question gets asked of Edinburgh, as it does of many other teams: are they strong enough to compete on two fronts, the league and cup? The answer in the case of Edinburgh has invariably been no, as some of their best displays in Europe have come at times when they were struggling to make an impact in the PRO12. But, having said more or less since he arrived that his main aim was achieve greater consistency, Cockerill apparently does not see the need to choose one competition over there,
I want us to try and be competitive every week and try and win every week,” he said yesterday after announcing his squad for the match in Reading. “That’s the challenge for this team. They’ve proven to be a team that can perform well in cup competitions – when they reached the semi-finals [of the Heineken Cup in 2012] they finished 11th in the league that year.
“It’s clearly a team that can raise itself on occasion, and we need to be a team that raises itself every week. We’re going to go to Irish and try and win the game. Same when we go to Russia [to play Krasny Yar in the Challenge Cup] and then obviously two very big games in the league, then a break before we go to South Africa. We’ve had a lot of away trips and we need to keep everybody’s minds and bodies as fresh as we can.”
The changes to the Edinburgh side start at full-back, where Glenn Bryce stands in for the injured Blair Kinghorn, and continue all the way to the back row, where Hamish Watson and Magnus Bradbury are notable absentees. Centres Phil Burleigh and Robbie Fruean are other players to be conspicuous by their absence from the squad, but Cockerill declared his faith in the pair replacing them, and in the others who are getting their chance this week.
“We’ve got some players with a few niggles and we want to clear those up with an eye to the PRO14, but also Junior Rasolea did a good job with Chris Dean earlier in the season, certainly in the first two games, so they get an opportunity to come back in and show what they can do. And just making sure that everybody’s getting good game time: we’re keeping everybody fresh and creating competition within the squad.
“Like I’ve previously said, we’ve got lots of players of a similar standard and it doesn’t make any sense picking the same 15, 18 guys every week. It’s good to get some rotation, and until people really start to nail their spots down we’ll continue to do that.
“And if we’ve got two players in the same position that are both playing well, it’s good to keep them fresh. It’s going to be a long season: we don’t need to be breaking people before we rest them.”
If the Edinburgh side is one of several line-ups of roughly equal ability that Cockerill could have chosen, the same cannot be said of London Irish. A record of one win in six games has left them in danger of relegation from the Premiership, and their selection for this first Challenge Cup outing seems to reflect their awareness that they league has to be their priority. Scotland internationals Blair Cowan and Greig Tonks and former Edinburgh captain Mike Coman are just three of the experienced names to be given a rest from first-team duties, although Cockerill warned that their young replacements would be eager to prove themselves.
“It’s certainly a mixed selection from them. The Premiership has relegation and there is a lot of money at stake and they’ve obviously had a tough six weeks. They’re using their squad as we are.
“In the Premiership a lot of money is spent on those first 20 players and it becomes difficult, but they have good youngsters in their squad and there’s experience in the team there as well. It’s hard to say if they’re prioritising the Premiership. We’ll wait and see when we play them.”
Edinburgh (v London Irish at the Madejski Stadium, Saturday 14 October, 3pm): G Bryce; D Fife, C Dean, J Rasolea, D Hoyland; J Tovey, S Hidalgo-Clyne; A Dell, S McInally, S Berghan, F McKenzie, B Toolis, J Ritchie, J Hardie, C du Preez. Substitutes: N Cochrane, D Marfo, W Nel, G Gilchrist, L Crosbie, N Fowles, T Brown, J Harries.
London Irish: B Ransom; J Cokanasiga, T Fowlie, J Williams, T Ojo; T Brophy Clews, B Meehan; H Elrington, T Woolstencroft, O Hoskins, W Lloyd, J McNally, M Northcote-Green, C Gilsenan, L Lomidze. Substitutes: T Gleave, T Smallbone, L Chawatama, J Cooke, I Curtis-Harris, S Steele, J Atkins, B Loader.
- Click here to read: Countdown to Europe: Warriors must raise their game again, says Rennie
- Click here to read: Simon Taylor column: European intensity – fact or fiction?