EDINBURGH have a task to complete today (Saturday) when they take on Agen in the last round of Challenge Cup pool games. And, judging by his pre-match remarks, it seems that Richard Cockerill has some unfinished business too.
A simple victory over the French club will take Cockerill’s team through to the last eight of the competition, while a bonus-point win could move them up the seedings among the three runners-up from the five pools. The head coach suggested recently that an away draw in the last eight could work in Edinburgh’s favour given they have lost their last three home quarter-finals, and yesterday he emphasised how much he would relish one away draw in particular: against his old club, Leicester Tigers.
Leicester are already through to the last eight as winners of their pool, as are Toulon, Bristol, and Bordeaux, who won Pool Two by beating Edinburgh at home last week. Those four were last night joined as group winners by Castres, who finished top of Pool One thanks to a 33-27 win away to Worcester. The Warriors were pipped for the runners-up spot by Dragons, who beat Yenisei 47-5 to book their place in the quarter-finals as one of the best runners-up.
Today’s matches will determine the final seedings, and in essence Edinburgh will simply be happy to get into the draw for the last eight. But, revealing he had not returned to Welford Road since being dismissed as director of rugby there, Cockerill explained that going back there with his current team would be a special occasion for him.
“It would be a good place to go, to test ourselves against one of England’s biggest clubs,” he said. “I’d love to go back as a former player and a former coach and go and test ourselves in one of the hardest places to go in the English game.
“I left Welford Road on New Year’s Day 2017 and I’ve not been back since. I know a lot of people there: I was there a long time. I still keep in touch with Geordan Murphy, he’s a good friend. There’s lots of people there I know well, so my association with Leicester is still very much alive and there’s lots of good people there I have a lot of time for.”
Cockerill’s devotion to the Leicester cause was second to none during the decade he spent at the club as a player, and that commitment to the cause continued in his long spell on the coaching staff. Given the abrupt nature of his eventual departure, it would be only too understandable if he harboured the occasional daydream about going back there, a successful coach again, and winning with his new team.
Not that he is getting ahead of himself by musing too much about the last eight before Edinburgh have got there. He thinks Edinburgh are mature enough to handle the pressure of being favourites against Agen, but does not expect an easy time.
“We’ve got some very experienced players and we need to be able to cope with the favourites tag and deliver a performance that gets you the win, it’s as simple as that. You’ve got to deal with that. It’s a different challenge to last week or to a Glasgow or a Scarlets or a Munster. When you’re expected to win, you need to play to the level you’re capable of and make sure you deliver on it.
“Agen are playing in a very tough league and they don’t lose their games by many. Even in the French Championship recently, they pushed teams very hard, especially at home. Toulouse and Lyon they’ve pushed very hard at home.
“We’ve got a good side out, nine changes, seven in the forward pack and we’re still very strong, so that shows what we’re trying to build. But we have to put it out on the field. We need to put in a good, workmanlike, straightforward performance, get the result and hopefully look forward to the quarter-final.”
While some big names such as Pierre Schoeman and WP Nel have returned to the starting line-up, others have been rested either because of minor niggles or with an eye on the Six Nations. Stuart McInally has a sore rib, for example, while Jamie Ritchie has a hamstring strain, Matt Scott took a knock last week and Bill Mata needs more time to recover from a cut to the face. Magnus Bradbury, meanwhile, is being rested in accordance with the Scotland protocol, having played five games in a row, while Blair Kinghorn also needs time on the sidelines, according to Cockerill, as he prepares for an onerous spell on international duty.