THERE comes a point when there is nothing left to say. Richard Cockerill and his Edinburgh team have talked a good game this week, presenting a quietly determined front ahead of their Guinness PRO14 play-off semi-final clash against Ulster tomorrow [Saturday] evening, but they know that actions speak louder than words. It is time to prove that the progress we all believe the team has made since the Englishman arrived as head coach in the summer of 2017 can be translated into something tangible in a game that really matters.
“Captain’s run today was very calm,” said the coach. “There was no beating the drum because there is no point. We just went through some technical stuff and the boys did a bit of add-ons to make sure they were happy with stuff. We know what we want to do so let’s just get ourselves in the head space to deliver what we say we want to deliver.
“It is an individual thing now for players to get themselves into a place mentally and physically, and that will plug in to what we do as a team. We’ve got to want it more than them. That’s the challenge for us.”
Edinburgh have lost three knock-out matches during the Cockerill era – against Munster in the 2017-18 PRO14 quarter-finals, against Cardiff Blues in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals that same year, and against Munster (again) in the 2018-19 Champions Cup quarter-finals – and they know that with almost a full squad available this week (the concussed Henry Pyrgos is the only notable absentee) they are unlikely to have a better chance to break that run of hard luck stories.
“Losing a semi is really painful because you don’t get to the big day out,” said Cockerill. “The thing we’ve talked about all week is not how good it would be to win, [but] let’s just deal with the 80 minutes in front of us. We’ve tried to have a pretty relaxed week, not put too much heat on the players, and tried to just prepare as normal.
“We haven’t approached it as a special one-off game, it has been about going out and doing what we have done in the other 20 odd games we’ve played this season. We’ve got a good record at home, and a good win ratio home and away across the season, so we just need to go out, put our best game on the field, and if we do that we’ll give ourselves the best opportunity. Let’s not think about post game, let’s just think about getting the game right in the moment.”
Cockerill highlighted the return from shoulder surgery of Ben Toolis to pack down in the second-row next to Grant Gilchrist (who was rested against Glasgow last week) as a major boost to the team’s prospects this weekend.
“We did not rush him back last week because there was no point,” the coach explained. “He has been training fully for the last two weeks. He is such good quality you have to pick him if he is available for selection. Him and Gilchrist are such a great partnership.
“He is not as match fit as we would have liked but he has worked hard away from the group during lockdown, and since we have been back, and he is desperate to play. He will be hugely valuable tomorrow and have a huge impact on the game because he is a world class player.”
The other important comeback story is Jamie Ritchie, who is named on the bench after recovering from a dislocated finger. Such is the strength in depth in the back-row that there wasn’t quite the same push to throw him straight back into the starting XV as there was with Toolis, and the squad would have been well served even if Ritchie hadn’t made it in time, but the 24-year-old’s form during the last 18 months meant that he was always going to be involved to some extent if available.
“Luke Crosbie, in particular, and Nick Haining are both pretty unlucky and there was a bit of debate around bringing Jamie in, but he’s a bit like Ben in that his quality is so great that you have to look to get him involved,” concurred Cockerill.
“The way Jamie has trained this week gives you that confidence that he is ready to go, and he’s just got that bit of devil and steel about him that shows you why he is doing what he’s doing at Test level.
“When teams get announced it is very psychological. People start looking down our team-sheet – Sutherland, McInally, Nel, Toolis, Gilchrist, Bradbury, Watson, Mata – you’ve got a bit of steel there, and then you look at the steel to come off the bench. So, psychologically for us, it is huge to have those guys back.
“We’ve got a good squad, they’ve got a good squad, they’ve got all the history of being in these types of games, but we should have the energy and desire to want to prove that we can take the next step.”