EDINBURGH will take a big step closer to completing their squad for next season with the re-signing of five more players over the coming two or three weeks. The club, who were given a significant boost on Tuesday with the news that Bill Mata has agreed a contract extension, are now on the verge of agreeing terms with Hamish Watson, Henry Pyrgos, Simon Berghan, David Cherry and Pietro Ceccarelli.
In another significant fillip to morale as the business end of the season approaches, Watson could return from injury this weekend for the vital PRO14 game at Benetton. Willem Nel also has a good chance of playing for the first time since being injured against Italy, and if the two forwards do come through the Treviso trip, they could figure in the Scotland squad for the Six Nations match against Wales on Saturday week.
Richard Cockerill plans some new signings too between now and the start of next season, but, if concluded successfully, the current wave of negotiations will complete the internal work of squad renewal. “All the lads we want to keep are all in process to stay, as simple as that,” the head coach said. “We’re a long way down the road of getting those guys sorted for the future.”
Watson’s current contract extension, signed in January 2017, is due to run out at the end of this season. Berghan agreed a two-year deal in May 2017, while Pyrgos, Cherry and Ceccarelli all signed on for a year when they joined from Glasgow Warriors, Nice and Oyonnax, respectively, last summer.
Openside Watson and scrum-half Pyrgos are the only two of the quintet who would be first choices in their positions when the whole squad is available, but Berghan is invaluable back-up at tighthead prop for Nel. And Ceccarelli, also a tighthead, and Cherry, a hooker, have both proven to be useful members of a squad which has been sorely depleted in recent weeks by injury and international demands.
Easing injury list
That pressure will ease this week if Nel and Watson are passed fit, while Ben Toolis may be released from the Scotland squad. With Mark Bennett having returned from five months out last week, and Matt Scott and John Barclay now well down the road to recovery from their long-term injuries, the reinforcements are arriving at just the right time for Cockerill.
“At the moment I’m hoping that Ben Toolis will have some time – though his game time may be limited, because he’ll go back to the [Scotland] squad on Monday,” he said. “I’m hoping WP Nel will have some time and be available for Scotland the week after. There’s a good chance Hamish Watson will be the same.
“Matt Scott is training fully, and we’re hoping he’ll be back for Leinster,” the coach continued, referring to the home PRO14 fixture on 22 March. “John Barclay is starting to train into units and teams, so he’s starting to make really good progress. He may well look to come back for Leinster as well.
“It’s good to have Mark Bennett back as well. We’re starting to get bodies on deck. When you’re starting to get a Test 12 and a Test 13 back training, things start to click a lot easier. Just having Barclay back in training, you can see the class he has as a player – because of his experience he knows what to do, and you don’t lose those parts.”
Dougie Fife should also be fit to play against Benetton after being taken off against Cardiff last Saturday with a head knock, although Duhan van der Merwe, who took a cut to a knee during that game, seems certain to miss out. With Leinster, Scarlets, Ulster and Glasgow still to come in the league after Benetton, Edinburgh have a very demanding run-in as they try to reach the play-offs – besides which, they have the small matter of a Champions Cup quarter-final at home to Munster to take into account.
“We go Leinster, Scarlets, Ulster, then Glasgow, so that’s a pretty tough run, but we’ve got to win them,” Cockerill added. “We’ve got to win the majority of those – you’ve probably got to win four of those.
“So therein lies the challenge – and we’ve got a huge quarter-final in the middle of that. That’s going to be a real test for our squad, but we’ve put ourselves in this position with some disappointing results.
“We’ve got to keep re-modelling this squad, get more depth, balance it out through the international period – and we’ve got to get better. The result at the weekend wasn’t acceptable: after being 17 points up with 28 minutes to go, you can’t lose that game. It’s simply not good enough.
“We need to be better, because we’ve lost games which we shouldn’t lose, which makes the end of season very, very hard for us. This group has been together for 21 months, and we’ve got to improve: parts of this season has been very good, but other parts haven’t been good enough.
“We’ve got to get better and win those ugly games, because the Kings game [an away defeat] and the Cardiff game – those six points would put us second at the moment. Now we have to go to Italy and get a result.”