AS the business end of the season approaches, Richard Cockerill believes Edinburgh are in a position they would have seen as “Utopia” at the start of the current campaign.
The head coach knows his team face some bruising battles over the remaining five regular-season league games, beginning against Munster on Friday night, if they are to stay in the play-off places in the PRO14. But, having seen them exceed expectations thus far, he is sure that if his players do themselves justice they can at least continue to make life very difficult for the more fancied teams in the competition.
“Our run-in is pretty tough and they’re all important games,” said Cockerill, who has been able to include Scotland squad members Simon Berghan and Ben Toolis in his team for the Murrayfield match. “We’ve managed as a club to put ourselves in a position to compete for a play-off spot, which at the start of the season would have been Utopia for us. For us to be consistently better than Ulster to this stage is pretty good going.
“There are still five big games to go and Ulster still to play, so we’ve proved that – Leinster, Ulster, Glasgow – we can beat the big teams if we can get it right, and Munster’s another test for us. So we’re looking to get our best game on the field, play as well as we can, improve again from Dragons and Ulster and Leinster,” Cockerill continued, referring to his team’s last three games, all of which were won.
“And if Munster come and play their best game and are better than us, then we get what we deserve. But if we’re right on our game there’s no reason why we can’t be in the contest. I’m not sure we’re still competing for the title, but we’re certainly competing to make the bigger teams that we’re competing with sweat.”
The title is almost certainly too big an ask for Edinburgh this time round, and when all the teams return to full strength after the Six Nations they will be hard pressed to maintain their present position. But even the fact that they are in contention at this late stage – five points clear of fourth-placed Ulster in Conference B – is a significant achievement.
On a high
Morale is higher than it has been for some seasons, and it is sure to be boosted by the return to the squad of Berghan and Toolis, even though Grant Gilchrist has travelled to Rome with the Scotland squad as 24th man.
“Simon Berghan was a pleasant surprise, so good to have him back to add strength to our bench,” Cockerill added. “He didn’t arrive back to our squad until this morning, that’s the reason he’s on the bench. If he’d been here earlier in the week I’m sure he would have started.
“When they’re all fit Scotland are starting to get some strength in depth in that tighthead position, so with [Willem] Nel and [Zander] Fagerson and Berghan, I think it just shows that Scotland have three very good players there. Someone’s got to miss out, this time it’s Simon, and we’re happy to have him back.
“I think Gilco’s played very, very well. Obviously he’ll be bitterly disappointed not to be involved [in the Scotland squad], but I understand why Scotland want to keep him. And to be fair we’ve got Toolis back in our team, with [Fraser] McKenzie and [Lewis] Carmichael: that’s three very good locks who have all played very well. So although we’ll miss Gilco to a point, Scotland have a job to do and their need is greater than ours at the moment.
“I think we’ve picked a good side. The lads that have got us through the international period to this point are a tight group. We’ve got a strong group, and when they’re all working together it’s a difficult team to beat.
“We’re a club that’s trying not to rely on its internationals, and so far, to be fair to the players, whoever’s been with us has played well: they’ve worked hard and we’ve given them some belief that they can go out and perform. We’re just trying to get the best out of our players and get them to be as good as they can, and by and large that’s worked out OK for us.
“I know that once those internationals come back into our squad it will certainly strengthen us and we’ll be a better side on paper for that happening. We’ve just got to make sure we get the best out of this group and keep them believing in themselves.”
Edinburgh (v Munster at BT Murrayfield, Friday, 7.35pm): D Fife; J Harries, M Bennett, C Dean, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, S Hidalgo-Clyne; J Lay, N Cochrane, M McCallum, F McKenzie, B Toolis, M Bradbury, J Hardie, V Mata. Substitutes: C Fenton, R Sutherland, S Berghan, L Carmichael, C du Preez, N Fowles, D Weir, J Rasolea.
Munster: S Zebo; D Sweetnam, S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton; J Hanrahan, J Hart; J Cronin, M Sherry, S Archer, J Kleyn, W Holland, J O’Donoghue, C Oliver, R Copeland. Substitutes: K O’Byrne, D Kilcoyne, B Scott, D O’Shea, T O’Donnell, J Stafford, W Johnston, D Goggin.
Edinburgh’s remaining PRO14 fixtures:
Fri 23 March away to Connacht
Fri 6 April home to Ulster
Sat 14 April home to Scarlets
Sat 28 April home to Glasgow