RICHARD Cockerill and Dean Richards are old friends who have won the Heineken Cup together and are still in regular contact – in fact, the Edinburgh coach revealed that they had had a chat on the phone yesterday, shortly before announcing their teams for tonight’s match at BT Murrayfield. But despite knowing each other from their days with Leicester – Cockerill was a player, and Richards the coach, when the Tigers became champions of Europe – they cannot entirely predict one another’s behaviour.
Take the Newcastle Falcons team chosen by Richards, the Kingston Park club’s director of rugby, for this Pool Five game. Edinburgh had been preparing all week to face wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti, two of the most dangerous wingers in the game, but neither has been included. Instead, Richards and head coach John Wells – another Leicester old boy – have selected what is, if not exactly a second team, a line-up that could at least be described as sup-optimal.
Cockerill, by contrast, has been able and willing to put out a very strong side for this vital encounter. On paper, Edinburgh’s first-choice squad would have places for John Barclay and Magnus Bradbury in the back row, Matt Scott and Mark Bennett in the centre, but those four have been out for some time with injuries. Of the group who have fronted up in both the PRO14 and the Champions Cup in recent months, every man has been available to the coach.
Given that difference between the selections, Cockerill’s team might well be regarded as favourites for the game – one which he believes his team must win to have a realistic chance of qualifying for the knockout stages. But, knowing how dangerous the Falcons are, and how astute Richards and Wells can be, he was loath to accept the tag.Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 12)
“I’m not sure about that,” he said. “We just have to concentrate on getting our game as good as it can be. It’s at home, we’ve had a good record at home and we need to win. If we’ve got any ambition of getting out the group we need to win this weekend, so that’s as simple as that.
“I don’t know if there are any favourites any more. If Newcastle can go to Toulon and win, only the second team ever to win there in Europe, they’re clearly a dangerous team, aren’t they?
“Look, Dean’s an experienced coach and he’s got a good rugby brain. And he’s a wily old fox, isn’t he? Just because they’ve picked what some people would say is a less threatening team, we’ve got to make sure that we’re right. We have to play at our best and not just hope that the opposition are worse than we are.
“We have to make sure we’re really good and if they’re going to beat us they’re going to have to be outstanding. That’s where we are with it. We’ve just got to play as hard as we can, play as well as we can, and we want to get as many points as possible. This pool is wide open and for us to qualify we’re going to need to win three games, as simple as that.”
Newcastle have had particularly bad injury problems up front, which explains some of the selections, but Richards has to fight on two fronts, domestic and Europe, in a different way to Cockerill. Unlike the PRO14, the English Premiership has relegation, and the Falcons are currently in bottom spot.
“Clearly they have some injury issues,” the Edinburgh coach continued. “The Premiership is very unforgiving – they’ve won their last two games and are still bottom of the table. They’ve been in good form in the last couple of weeks, were on good form in the English cup, but they sent a very mixed side to Toulon and won, so I’m not reading too much into it.
“Dean and John Wells are good coaches, and they’ll be very combative and make us work hard, and we know if we don’t get it right they’re a good enough side to beat us., If all fit they could pick a stronger team, but the PRO14 doesn’t have to worry about relegation. The premiership is very tight. There’s no point Newcastle having a great run in Europe and getting relegated, so Dean has to manage that on both fronts which is very hard.
“His team will play to the death as we’ve seen in Montpellier where they won it in the 88th minute and at the weekend against Northampton they won it in the 86th minute. So Dean doesn’t take fools lightly and every team he’s coached has been very hard to break down and very disciplined and very tough.”
Richards himself referred to that record of winning games very late when he said he had faith that his team were fit enough to again prevail in the end if they had to.
“We’re a side who have a habit of winning in the dying minutes, which probably doesn’t do my heart any good or the hearts of our supporters,” he said. “But we’ve got the confidence that we can go into the 80th minute or beyond and get what we need out of the game.”