IT IS common in Scottish football to hear coaches complain that their players’ attacking skills are undervalued by the press and public alike. “If he was Brazilian, you’d be raving about a goal like that”, reporters are often told after a particularly pleasing strike.
Now, Richard Cockerill has produced his own version for Edinburgh Rugby, suggesting that his side’s attacking prowess does not get the acclaim it deserves. “If other teams scored some of the tries that we scored tonight, there would be a lot more said about it,” he stated after watching his side touch down eight times in their 50-20 win over London Irish at BT Murrayfield.
No prizes for guessing which other team in particular the coach might have in mind. Glasgow visit the national stadium two days before Christmas, the return PRO14 match is at Scotstoun a week later, and, with only the Krasny Yar Challenge Cup game to come first, his thoughts have already turned to the domestic double-header.
So is Cockerill right? Are we giving Edinburgh less credit than they merit? Should we be more appreciative of the entertaining rugby they produce?
Some of the tries on Saturday night were certainly impressive, with the pick of the bunch, because the degree of difficulty was greatest, being scored by Darcy Graham. The winger did not see a great deal of the ball on his competitive debut, and missed 10 minutes of first-half play when he had to be sacrificed for a prop with Rory Sutherland dispatched to the sinbin. But he did get one chance to score – in fact, a half-chance, if that – and he took it supremely well, angling his body acrobatically to get to a chip into the corner and score just before he landed out of play.
That was not the only try produced by a grubber kick that turned the defence, and by the end you almost felt sorry for London Irish because of their slapstick inability to mop up those balls into their in-goal area. Run-in scores such as those by Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Phil Burleigh were produced by stretching the exiles’ defence, while other tries, such as the first by Stuart McInally, were primarily the product of power.
So there is an encouraging versatility to the Edinburgh attack, but, as Cockerill himself admitted, those tries have to be assessed, at least in part, according to the quality of the opposition. “We’re developing our game well, but, as ever, I’m a pragmatist,” he added. “Irish didn’t send their best team and we rotated a few. It was a very good win, but you have to take that into the context of the opposition as well.
“Eight tries is good, but it’s just a start – we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We’ll hopefully have a good win next week, and then we can concentrate on playing Glasgow, which will be a real test to see where we’re at.”
Granted, you can only deal with the opposition you are given, and on Saturday night Edinburgh dealt with it well. This is one area in which they have undoubtedly improved since Cockerill arrived: with the very odd exception such as the dismal defeat at Myreside by Benetton, they are now far more consistent at putting teams away.
“We’re trying to encourage the lads to play and I think we’re doing that well,” Cockerill continued, before emphasising that a lot of work still needed to be done. “We’re trying to improve our game, but we’ve got to get our fundamentals a little bit better. I thought our scrum creaked a little bit early on, but to be fair to London Irish there was some experience in that front row against two props who haven’t played a huge amount this season.
“This team’s growing, and there are some players who do some very good things. We’ll hopefully still just keep doing it. The challenge is can we do it next week and the week after and for the next six months of the season?”
In other words the challenge is to do it consistently, and against opposition which at times will be a lot stronger than the teams Edinburgh have faced in the Challenge Cup. There is no doubt that the likes of Graham and Blair Kinghorn have the potential to score against the best defences, but you still can’t see their team getting them into a position to do so against, for example, the heavyweight sides such as Exeter and Montpellier who Glasgow have come up against in this season’s Champions Cup. Not yet, anyway.
Cockerill knows that, of course. He does not think his team have become world-beaters in a matter of months since he took over, and he is certainly not going to run the risk of complacency setting in by overpraising his players. But, understandably, he would like a bit more acknowledgement of the progress made so far – not, you suspect, for his sake, but for that of those younger, less experienced players whose confidence remains fragile.
Edinburgh have been underachievers for years, and for a lot of that time they have played some really dreary rugby. Little wonder, then, that no-one is getting carried away just yet by the improved results and more attractive performances that they have produced this season.
But they are heading in the right direction: that is undeniable. It might not yet be just like watching Brazil, but watching an Edinburgh game is certainly a lot more aesthetically pleasing than it was. And the chances of seeing a victory are a lot better too.
“Cockers has done a great job toughening us up,” is how Burleigh put it after his two-try performance won him the man-of-the-match award on Saturday. “He’s building a very good team culture. Maybe we took a bit for granted [before].
“It’s really good to see this team starting to grow. I always knew it was there – it was just getting it out of us. We’re building on wins, and game by game, and it’s nice to see.”