Dragons v Edinburgh: Richard Cockerill forced to test squad depth

Head coach has been forced into fielding a highly inexperienced tight five in Sunday''s match

Richard Cockerill said selection was easy this week - "We just picked the ones that were fit!" Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Richard Cockerill said selection was easy this week - "We just picked the ones that were fit!" Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

RICHARD COCKERILL was joking when he said that he had thought about naming himself on the bench for Sunday’s final match of the PRO14 league campaign away to the Dragons, but it wasn’t a million miles away from the truth.

At least he had the good grace to acknowledge that his assistant Stevie Lawrie – also a retired international hooker and 13 years his junior – would probably be the better option.

In the end he went for 18-year-old Patrick Harrison as back-up to Sam Kitchen. The academy prospect made his debut for Peebles in National two soon after this 17th birthday and played most of the 2019-20 season with Borderers before lockdown and has been in full-time with the Edinburgh squad since rugby returned last August.

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“He had some game time in the ‘A’ game [last month],” explained Cockerill. “He’s a farming boy from Biggar and he’s the youngest of four brothers so I reckon he’s had a pretty good upbringing. He’s a good kid and I wouldn’t put him out there if I didn’t think he was ready.

“He’s worked really hard, he’s a good young player and he gets his opportunity on Sunday. Everybody has their first game and it’s an opportunity for him to start his career.”

“It was him or me on the bench, so he got the nod,” Cockerill added with a chuckle. “I’d be willing but I’d be fit for about two minutes, I reckon – although we’ve got Stevie Lawrie so he could play the rest of it!”

Harrison is not the only novice on the bench. 22-year-old Shaun Gunn, who is covering loose-head prop, hasn’t played at this level before either. Tight-head replacement Angus Williams arrived in Scotland just as lockdown was kicking in to play Super6 for Watsonians, and the 28-year-old has now played twice off the bench as emergency cover for Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, of the starting front-row, tight-head Lee-Roy Atalifo could be described as a seasoned campaigner although he is third choice at the club when the internationalists are back, Murray McCallum has been capped by Scotland as tight-head but has managed just three starts in the last two and a half seasons and is being deployed as a loose-head on Sunday, and Australian hooker Sam Kitchen (up against former British Lion Richard Hibbard) is on a partnership contract with Ayrshire Bulls and is making his first start after debuting for 15 minutes off the bench against Cardiff Blues last week.

It’s also going to be a big day for 21-year-old Marshall Sykes who is making his first start in the engine-room, where he will pack down alongside Jamie Hodgson.

“We’ll just prepare as well as we can,” shrugged Cockerill. “All those guys are training with us every week anyway so they’ve worked hard. Obviously, they haven’t had a lot of game time because there aren’t any other games outside pro level, but we’ll prepare them as well as we possibly can then we’ll go into battle and see how we get on.

“We’ll just concentrate on ourselves. It’s a reasonably experienced back-line, it’s a pretty dynamic back–row, but the tight five apart from Lee-Roy is pretty inexperienced and we’re even less experienced on the bench.

“There’s nothing else we can do, really. It’s as simple as that. It’s a good challenge and it may be tough in the tight-five, but we’ll see. We’ve got to step up and meet the challenge.

“The reality is that there is no consequence to Sunday for ourselves, so guys like Marshall Sykes, who has worked really hard, gets his first proper start for us and it will be a good test for him. Shaun Gunn, Patrick Harrison … good opportunities for them. Same with Matt Currie on the bench, and Jack Blain who is starting on the wing again.

“So, there are some up sides to this. We assume it is going to be tough but if we go there and win it will be a fantastic part of these guys’ development, and if we don’t win but we put in a good performance and show what we are about character-wise then we are taking a step in the right direction.

“It’s the game to put people in and give them an opportunity, without compromising their safety, I suppose.”

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The truth is, this will be all about  getting through this game as best as the team can manage, and then trying to regroup in time to head to Paris the following Sunday to take on Finn Russell’s Racing 92 in the last 16 of the European Champions Cup.

And thereafter it is into the Rainbow Cup – which looks like a bit of a dog’s dinner of a competition due to the Covid induced challenges of playing against South African sides at the moment – but will at least give the whole squad a chance to pull together for the last two months of this season after so much disruption.

“It is good to get some clarity on what we’re doing post-Europe,” agreed Cockerill. “We’ll have everybody back [from international duty] and the squad together pretty much for the first time this season. I’m just crossing my fingers that no-one gets injured tonight [Friday] playing for Scotland and then we can get back into the important stuff.

“We go to Racing next Sunday to play, so that’s going to be an important game for us, and we’re short of second-rows full-stop, so I’m just praying that Grant Gilchrist comes through tonight, otherwise we are really struggling for experience.

“We’ve still got to complete the 1872 Cup and we’ve obviously got home and away fixtures with Glasgow. I think we’ll all be glad to get our players back and test ourselves against each other so that will be good.

“Hopefully at some point we will start to get some sort of crowds back into the stadiums. But everybody’s the same, we’re going from week to week whether that’s rugby or the world in general.”

Edinburgh (v Dragons at the Principality Stadium, Sunday 2pm): B Kinghorn; J Blain, M Bennett, C Dean, E Sau; J van der Walt, H Pyrgos©; M McCallum, S Kitchen, L Atalifo, M Sykes, J Hodgson, M Bradbury, L Crosbie, M Kunavula. Substitutes: P Harrison, S Gunn, A Williams, A Ferreira, C Boyle, C Shiel, M Currie, G Taylor.

Dragons: J Williams; J Holmes, A Owen, J Dixon, A Hewitt; S Davies, G Bertranou; B Harris, R Hibbard, L Fairbrother, J Davies, M Screech, A Wainwright, H Keddie©, R Moriarty. Substitutes: E Dee, G Bateman, L Brown, B Carter, B Fry, R Williams, N Tompkins, E Lloyd.

Dragons v Edinburgh: Cockerill makes nine changes to heavily depleted team

About David Barnes 3268 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

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