WHEN your bench includes John Barclay, Ross Ford, Allan Dell and Simon Berghan, it is an indication that you expect a massive arm-wrestle up front – and that you have the manpower required to win it. Certainly, Edinburgh should go into tonight’s crucial PRO14 game against Ulster in a confident frame of mind, knowing they have such experience to call on.
It is a must-win game for Richard Cockerill’s side, as their last two have also been. Wins at home to Leinster and away to Scarlets have dragged them back into contention for the two remaining play-off places in Conference B, but they are still only fourth, three points adrift of this evening’s opponents and one behind Benetton. A defeat could kill off their hopes: a win would at least keep their chances alive going into the final round of regular-season games, when they visit Glasgow at the end of the month.
Given the strength of his back row, it cannot be easy for Cockerill to decide on his starting selection, but in recent weeks Barclay has got the nod over Magnus Bradbury. This time, however, the younger man has been preferred, although as the head coach explained, there may well be a crucial role for the former Scotland captain to play – as indeed there could well be for another ex-national skipper in Ford.
“John’s had a few bumps and bruises,” Cockerill said. “He’s had nine months off and then three starts on the trot. Magnus Bradbury is a really good player who’s fully fit and really chomping at the bit to play, so I just felt it was the right thing to do this week to take a little bit of pressure off Barcs this week around training. Jamie Ritchie is unfit, he still has the remnant of an injury from Scotland which he aggravated against Munster, so I thought it was the right thing to do.
“I think Barclay off the bench with 25 or 30 minutes to go, given his experience and how he plays, and what he offers, both leadership and playing-wise might be good for us. It’s a great scenario where you can make changes and rotate and look after guys who maybe can’t train early in the week, but where really good quality fresh guys come in and are desperate for their opportunity.”
It was announced earlier this week that Ford will leave Edinburgh at the end of the season, so unless the team claim a home quarter-final by finishing second in the conference this will be the hooker’s last outing at Murrayfield. Or at least it will be if he comes off the bench, something which Cockerill refused to guarantee.
“If it’s the right thing to put Fordy on, then he’ll get on. I won’t be putting him on to get his 198th or whatever it is appearance: if I need him on the field because that’s the right thing, he’ll be on.
“Same with Barcs or any of the bench. I don’t pre-empt changes. If I think we need to change because we need a different approach or different energy or guys are looking fatigued, then I’ll make the change. But I’ll only do that for the benefit of the team.
“I’m sure Fordy’s the same: he wants to be put on the field because his team needs him, not because he wants one last cheer from his home crowd. He’s a good man, he works very hard at his game. You don’t do what he’s done in the game without being a very, very good professional and a good player and a good human being. He’s cracked on about his business as normal, because that’s the sort of bloke he is.
“It’s not our last game. I’m hoping that we’ve got three or four or five more to go. I’d love him to be a double centurion, because it would be horrible for him to stop on 197 or 198 or 199, but I don’t get to decide that and nor does he. It’ll be how far we get in the comp, and also if he appears on the field he’ll be on the field purely out of performance.”
While Ford takes his place in the Edinburgh squad, one of his old international rivals, Rory Best, is a conspicuous absentee from the Ulster squad because of an ankle injury that could keep him out for the rest of the season. Rob Herring continues at hooker instead of Best, lock Iain Henderson returns to captain the visitors, and Jacob Stockdale moves from wing to full-back in place of the injured Michael Lowry.
“They’re a good side, but I’m not too concerned about who they pick because if we play as well as we can and have belief then we’re good enough to beat their best side, never mind one that has players missing,” Cockerill added. “Stockdale’s a world-class player and in counter-attack he’s exceptionally good. Obviously it’s not his preferred position, but the aerial parts of his game are very good when he’s on the wing so it will be interesting to see how they manage that with [Robert] Baloucoune and [Rob] Lyttle because they know what’s coming from our exit strategy, and hopefully Stockdale at 15 will be less effective. But he’s a world-class player and if we give loose ball or turn ball over he will punish us.”
Meanwhile, Benetton are at home tonight against a Munster side who have made 11 changes from the team that started last week’s win against Cardiff. The Irish province, who have a Champions Cup semi-final tie against Saracens next weekend, have rested key internationals such as Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Farrell for the trip to Italy, and brought in academy players Gavin Coombes and Shane Daly.
Benetton could clinch a play-off place this weekend should they defeat Munster and Edinburgh lose this evening. With a final-round fixture at Italian rivals Zebre still to come, they will be odds on to reach the play-offs for the first time if they win tonight, even if Edinburgh also pick up a home win. If Munster fail to pick up any points tonight, Glasgow can win Conference A by beating Leinster in Dublin tomorrow.