EDINBURGH captain Fraser McKenzie says that there is no chance of the chat surrounding who will leave and who will join the squad next season having a negative impact on the team’s performances.
The capital outfit have hit a rich vein in form in recent months, qualifying for the knock-out stages of the European Challenge Cup and emerging as credible contenders for a play-off finish in the PRO14 at the end of the season.
The club endured more than its fair share of turmoil during the first few months of Richard Cockerill’s reign as head coach, during which time international flanker John Hardie was suspended for alleged cocaine use, captain Magnus Bradbury was suspended after injuring his face in a late-night fall in Edinburgh city centre and last summer’s star signing Robbie Fruean was forced into retirement due to a long-standing heart condition.
But rather than retreat into their shells, the coach and the players have come out fighting, with last Friday night’s last gasp victory over Leinster the latest piece of evidence that after years of chronic under-achievement the team are finally ready to become serious players.
Despite the progress the team has made during a relatively short period of time under Cockerill, the combative former Leinster and England hooker made it clear earlier this week that he is prepared to be ruthless when it comes to putting together his squad for next season, with Cornell du Preez, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Duncan Weir and Jason Tovey already confirmed as being on their way out.
But McKenzie says there is no danger of the team’s new-found swagger disappearing just because there is going to be a bit of a revolving door in operation for players during the summer.
“I try to take a step back, I control the playing side of things and keep with the current squad. That is the squad that is going to get us where we want to be over the next eight games. Out of respect for them, that is where I want to be. I don’t want to be talking about next season – who is in who is out – it is really nothing to do with me, that is the way I see it,” said the 29-year-old second-row, who still has a year left on his contract so won’t be moving on any time soon.
“The squad we have got at the moment is performing well and gelling well and that is exciting. Next year, I am sure there are very good players coming in. There is good knowledge within the coaching team and they see the areas we need to improve, and who are the best options. You go with it and the people who come in will buy into our culture and, if not, we will get somebody else – that’s how it works.”
McKenzie ended up as captain mid-season because of that incident with Bradbury, but he has taken to the role like a duck to water – although the man himself prefers to focus on the whole team environment.
“It doesn’t instantly happen. Cockers came in and then, at the start of October, when we had only played three or four games, it all happened. It was not ideal, everybody knows that, but we have put that behind us. The players in question have fully bought into it – they had never not bought into it but had made a couple of errors, poor judgment,” he explains.
“People jumped on it then. Do Edinburgh have a culture issue? Have their standards dropped? Are they too comfortable? Possibly we were and we look back and say: Did we need a kick up the arse? We probably did.”
“Generally, from that point onwards, and the Treviso home game [when Edinburgh played brainless rugby in a 17-20 home defeat in round three of the PRO14 on the 15th September], it was a turning point for us. Were we going to be just a team that scrapes through games or were we going to be a team that played an exciting brand of rugby? We have changed the way we play, we are challenging our skills and not wanting to play a simple brand.”
“We had big meetings when we were saying: We can’t allow this to happen, is there a mental issue with us? We played a lot of games last season when we lost by one point, two points. The pressure was starting to build up. The Treviso game was not the brand of rugby we wanted to play. You saw by the Leinster game the following week that we started to play an exciting brand of rugby. Cockers really likes that. He wants to have a physical, abrasive side but also a side that is not afraid to attack, to take the opportunities. That is what we are starting to do.”
Cockers has come in and added that discipline and added that minimum standard
“Everybody said: Edinburgh kick for the corner and play for penalties – but we want to challenge defences. If we make mistakes, we make mistakes and then get back on it – on to the next job. That is how we are focussing on it now.”
“Cockers has come in and added that discipline and added that minimum standard: that this is a level we have to achieve and if not then you will be replaced. You either buy in or you are gone. It is as simple as that and the majority of the squad have looked at it and said: We want to be part of this.”
“The other difference between this year and last year is that competition for places is a massive thing. Last year we pretty much had the same team week-in and week-out. This year we have guys like Luke Crosbie coming in. One bad game [by the player who started the season ahead of him in the pecking order], it doesn’t matter, he comes in and performs consistently well.”
“It is exciting times. We have a very good coaching staff, Hodgie [Duncan Hodge] was here previously and is a very good coach, though last season did not show that in difficult circumstances with coaches leaving and him changing up. But we have had a bit of stability now and that is starting to show. The coaching set up has fresh new ideas and the players are really buying into it.”
“Rugby is very much a confidence sport,” he continued. “You can see with Scotland, they are playing against Australia, 50-point game and everyone is playing with confidence, everything is coming off. Sometimes it does not work out that way and then it is a question of how do you get back on the horse?”
“Scotland could have gone into their shells against France but, no, they still went out there and tested their skill levels and built pressure. They went behind but still had that confidence and character to come back into the game. Edinburgh has the same thing.”
“We could easily let our heads go down when we go behind against teams but it is a question of how we evolve and adapt to who is playing in front of us. That is something we are getting better at, adapting as we go, problem solving as we go.”
“We are starting to think we are never really out of games. Teams score an early try, like Leinster did [last Friday], and look like they are going well, they potentially could have gone 10-0 up. Our attitude was we need to get back into the game – what do we need to do to get back in the game?’ Our leaders and our playmakers are starting to boss it and I really like that.”
“It is encouraging times but, as Cockers says, there will be both ups and downs. It is not an easy process. There will be times we dip but we really want to get back as quickly as we can.”
Edinburgh demonstrated this new-found self-belief last Friday when they trailed mighty Leinster with only 14 seconds left on the match clock. Awarded a kickable penalty, stand-off Jaco Van der Walt used the free ball to send a chip over the top for Glenn Bryce to tap back inside for Mark Bennett to score the winner.
The focus now is on backing up that excellent result away to fellow Guinness PRO14 Conference B hopefuls Ulster, knowing that a positive result will allow them to leapfrog the Northern Irish outfit into third place in the table.
“It is a big game. We know what is at stake. A win puts us in a very good situation but if we don’t win we are not out of it, we are still in the mix and believe in ourselves,” said McKenzie. “We are training hard. We have bought into it as a team at the moment regardless of who is missing – they take a back seat – it is about who is on the training field at any moment in time. We get back who we get back [from the Scotland squad] and we are focussing on that [game]. We will give it our all and are looking forward to it.”