Edinburgh v Newcastle: Richard Cockerill rejoices in Test players’ return

The coach is sure that at their best his team can be a match for any other side in Europe

Jamie Ritchie and Blair Kinghorn are two of the Scotland internationals who return to the Edinburgh squad to face La Rochelle. Image: © Craig Watson. www.craigwatson.co.uk

IS IT still a bit early to be full of seasonal joy? Richard Cockerill thinks not.

After a trying few weeks which culminated in Friday’s heavy defeat by Munster, the Edinburgh coach has got his frontline internationals back, and is looking forward to unleashing them during a run of games which he knows could define the team’s season.

Newcastle are first up at Murrayfield on Friday as the Champions Cup resumes, then comes the return match at Kingston Park before the 1872 Cup double-header against Glasgow Warriors. Cockerill is confident that on their day his first-choice team can be a match for any other side in Europe, but he knows that they will have to play consistently at their best if they are to emerge from this series of fixtures with their chances of Heineken qualification and a PRO14 play-off place enhanced.

That is a tall order in both competitions. Edinburgh have already lost away to Montpellier in Pool 5 of the Champions Cup, and lag behind third-placed Ulster in Conference B in the league. But for the time being, at least, Cockerill is in an ebullient and optimistic mood – as any coach would be who suddenly had the likes of Blair Kinghorn, Stuart McInally, Willem Nel, Hamish Watson and Bill Mata available to him again.

“It’s Christmas come early!,” he said yesterday (Monday). “No, it’s good to get everybody back in, for obvious reasons. They’re all fit and healthy, which is good. For the last six weeks we’ve not had them. It’s nice to have a full complement that you can pick from, and you can prepare properly and have a proper training week and have everybody here.”

The injury list is as long as it has been for the past few weeks, with Matt Scott and Lewis Carmichael among those still to be passed fit to resume playing. But with a whole new pack and more back in harness after the Autumn Internationals, as well as backs such as Kinghorn, Cockerill clearly feels that the squad will be up to the task of fighting on two fronts, even if he did say last week that Europe would be his priority.

“The lads who have been playing for Scotland should be confident,” he continued. “Confidence isn’t a problem. We haven’t been together for six weeks, that’s the hard part for us.

“The season for me is not even halfway through and there is a lot to play for. We’re still in Europe – that may change in the next fortnight, but we’ll see. The league is very much alive. We’ve had a tough start and not been as good as we should have been, but we will be battling for 21 rounds and looking to get into the play-offs and back into the Champions Cup, because that’s where we want to be.

“When we’ve got our combinations right we’re as good as any team, and I believe we can compete with any team in Europe on our day if we get it right. The challenge is to do it consistently. It will be a real test for us having so many guys away with Scotland, getting back in and assimilating back into club rugby. They’ve had a lot asked of them in the past few weeks by the Test team, and rightly so.

“The challenge is can they be professional enough and motivated enough to come back in seamlessly and play in these big matches? That’s a challenge we haven’t had before.

“A year ago we would be resting our internationals in this window with [Challenge Cup] games against Krasny Yar and London Irish’s second team. Now we have to back up Test matches with crucial European games, then crucial league games, Glasgow-Glasgow and then we have Kings at home, then Europe again at Toulon. That’s a tough old fixture list to get through. Our players have got to learn to play at that level week in, week out, because that’s what all the really good teams have to do every year. So that will be a real acid test for us.”

Friday’s opponents are a good illustration of how difficult it is to fight on two fronts at this level, because while they are top of their European pool with two wins from two games, Newcastle are also bottom of the English Premiership with just three wins from nine starts. They are two points clear of Edinburgh, however, leaving Cockerill in no doubt about the status of this game.

“We need to win. If you’re going to qualify out of the group, then you’re going to need to win three of the last four games – at least – to give yourself an opportunity. Newcastle at home has to be a game that we target to win – and probably the away game as well. I’m sure they’ll be thinking the same.

“So if we can win the next two games and move on to 14 points heading into the last two games, you’ll probably need four or five points from there to be second in your group potentially. So we still have an opportunity to qualify.”

There was a time when any game which pitted a Scottish team against English opponents would be seen in the public eye as a Calcutta Cup clash in miniature. But understandably given the presence in the Falcons squad of the likes of John Hardie, Chris Harris and Gary Graham, Cockerill is disinclined to present this match to his players in those terms.

“You’ve got to get past the emotional part and just play good rugby. It’s not about beating the English. It’s not about being English and Scottish – it’s about being a good team.

“So if we’ve got to motivate our boys by saying ‘hate the English’ it’s not what we’re about. We’re about being a good team and being good pros and making sure we get a good performance. There’s only so many times you can tap into the emotional bucket to drag it out of them. We just want to be good.

“I don’t care who we play against and what nationality they are, I’m not fussed. I hate anyone not playing for Edinburgh, it makes no difference to me whatever nationality they are. We’ll concentrate on being as good as we can be.”

About Stuart Bathgate 1427 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.