RICHARD COCKERILL has challenged his side to embrace the pressure of playing do-or-die rugby in order to defeat Ulster in this weekend’s PRO14 play-off semi-final clash at Murrayfield.
The Englishman says his players have license to play from their own line if the opportunity is there to do so, but warned them that every decision they make has the potential to make-or-break their season.
“We have won big games [in the past] but when it really matters we need to make sure we deliver on all the things we have done in the last three years, the things that have made us good,” he said.
“All the basic stuff around our game, the set-piece, our defence, making good decisions at the right time – if that is to run the ball from under our own sticks then we will, but if not [then] we won’t force it – we will play the right game to win knock out rugby.
“It does not have to be fancy or flash. When teams are evenly matched you need to do the basics well. We have to make sure we don’t lose our bottle, make sure we don’t blink first, and when opportunities arise, we take them … and we minimise the opportunities of the opposition.
“Our mentality is that if we get the ball back the first thought is to attack. So, attack first, kick second, and make good decisions around that. We’ve got lots of threats and we’ve got a very good back three. We’ve got a very good threat in our midfield with Mark Bennett, Chris Dean and George Taylor, who may not be household names but they are very good players. We’re a team that can cause problems. We’ve got a very good ball-carrying forward pack, and a pretty balanced side that can play all types of rugby. If we need to kick it then we’ll kick it, if we need to run then we’ve got enough threats to be able to score from long distance.”
Picking an underdog
Edinburgh have home advantage by virtue of having performed better over the course of the regular league season, but Cockerill – a master of mind games – rejected the notion that this makes his team favourites.
“Ulster have won the competition before, they are in the Champions Cup quarter-finals against Toulouse and they are the club with all the history of being successful so surely that makes them favourites,” he claimed.
“The pressure is on them. They are the team that should deliver. They are a team that should expect to beat Edinburgh. I would think there is more pressure on Ulster to win than us. The only pressure we have is from ourselves internally. There is a lot of pressure on Ulster to deliver because they are Ulster and they expect success.”
But that theory soon fell apart when he was asked for his own assessment of his team’s chances.
“Because of their experience with a quarter-final against Munster [last year] and the experience of Test match rugby there comes a natural point when they have to step up. I think Saturday night is the time for us to step up and show what we are about,” he stated.
“Let’s go out there and show what we are about. There are no excuses for us not delivering on Saturday night. If we play our best game we can win. If both teams turn up and play their best game it is 50/50. It will be a bounce of the ball, a moment of brilliance, as in all tight games, that decides it. I don’t want us just to be happy to lose and think it is an okay season. Internally we have to have bigger ambition than that.
“We want to enjoy ourselves by doing everything right. If that means we kick the ball every time we get it because it is the right decision, we will be kicking the ball. At the highest level it is about winning, and the satisfaction of post-game winning is the bit you enjoy – in the moment, parts of it are not particularly enjoyable. The achievement is the thing that is enjoyable.”
Embracing the challenge
“I wish I was playing in it,” he emphasised his point. “They [the team] are very focused. Everybody wants to play. There are a few grumpy people who are not starting and that makes training a bit livelier than it may well have been before.
“I think we’re ready. The boys want to show how good they are and how much they have improved. We have a lot of Test players who will start for Scotland in the Autumn and the Six Nations, and we expect those guys to be able to perform and make sure they are ready to play in these games.
“All our guys want to play for Edinburgh. We finally have a club where the club team is more important than the national team in the first instance. If you do well for us you can go and play for the national side because you deserve to. This is part and parcel of it. We want to try and win the PRO14 because we have the opportunity to do so. Whether we are good enough, we will find out in the next couple of weeks.
“The other teams left in the competition genuinely feel that we are a threat because if you don’t get it right against us [then] we are good enough to beat you. That has come a long way from where we were a while ago.
“They [Ulster] are a very rounded team; the sum of their parts and the collective will of the team is probably far greater than the individuals,” he added.
“Like ourselves, they [Ulster] have some great players but they are very much a tight unit. We know the threat at nine [John Cooney], a very good player, and I know [stand-off] Billy Burns, who is tidy, and Ian Madigan is the same. Jacob Stockdale at full-back has done exceptionally well.
“Their game pivots around Stuart McCloskey at 12 – we know that and they know that but you still have to try and stop him. The No8 [Marcell Coetzee] is a pretty tidy operator so it will be a great contest between him and Viliame Mata.
“They are a good side and they have some good players across the field, [but] we know how to stop them – it’s just a matter of whether we are capable of doing it on the day.”