EDINBURGH forward Grant Gilchrist is sure his team will face tougher competition in the PRO14 this season than last, but is confident the squad is well placed to rise to the challenge. Having been a member of that squad since 2011, the 28-year-old thinks the battle for places in the first 15 will be fiercer than ever – a reflection not only of the shrewd recruiting by Richard Cockerill, but also of the improvement across the board since the head coach took over a year ago.
“We had a good season last year, but we understand that the challenge is going to be a lot bigger this year,” Gilchrist said at this week’s launch of Premier Sports’ coverage of the PRO14. “We surprised a lot of teams last year – we won’t be surprising teams this year. They know what we’re about, and we’re going to have to up our game considerably just to stay where we were last year, which was in the play-offs. That was a really great achievement, but we want to kick on, and we understand the size of the task that will be.
“The boys in my position are playing well; there’s good competition across the board. I think it’ll be the most competitive Edinburgh squad I’ve ever seen. If you look at how to pick a 15 at the minute, it’s tough. There’s going to be a lot of quality players that won’t be playing, so that stands us in good stead – competitive drives performance, and I know Cockers will be picking guys who are on their best form regardless of who you are or what you’ve done in the past. That’s a good thing.
“You need that competition to drive you to be the best, and you’re going to need a full squad throughout the season – that’s a fact. You’re not going to use 15 guys, you’re not going to use 23 guys, it’s a 40-odd-man squad and all of these guys will play a key part if you’re going to have a good season.”
Strength in numbers
Knowing that an increasing number of the team’s young Scottish players are likely to be called up on international duty, assistant coach Duncan Hodge agreed with Gilchrist that a large squad will be necessary if the team is again to be in contention for a place in the end-of-season play-offs. And he warned that performing better than last season would not necessarily be enough for Edinburgh to make it into the top three in their conference this time round.
“The guys we have signed have brought a greater depth to the squad and I think that’s going to be needed,” Hodge said. “Blair Kinghorn and Magnus Bradbury played very well over the summer, so common sense says they will be there or thereabouts [in the Scotland squad] again, which means we might not have them and have to cover there. It will be more difficult, but hopefully we have a stronger squad now to cope with that.
“Every pre-season people talk about improving, but it’s a relative rate of improvement. We could be 10 per cent better, but if Ulster are 30 per cent better then we’ve lost ground. Pre-season is always difficult. You know you’re potentially better than you were, but you don’t really know until you start facing other teams. It’s going to be tougher than last year, and people also know a bit more about what to expect from us. I don’t think they’ll take us lightly.”
Ready for the off
After a narrow defeat by Bath and a morale-boosting win at Newcastle in their pre-season friendlies, Edinburgh get their competitive season under way on Friday with a trip to Ospreys. “It’s always a tough battle down there,” Gilchrist said. “They’re a strong side; they’ve traditionally been one of the stronger Welsh provinces.
“From memory, we always seem to do well against them at home and they always seem to do well against us down there. That certainly puts the ball in our court to see if we can reverse that. They’ve got a lot of experience – guys like Alun Wyn Jones, [Justin] Tipuric, Scott Williams in the centre. They’ve got quality and experience, so we know we’ll have to be at our best. That’s what’s exciting about the league, and we’ll be hoping to go down there and get the points.
“We’re preparing really hard for Ospreys at the minute, and we’ll see where that takes, and then we’ll prepare really hard for Ulster. That’s how we looked at games last season; we’re not going to change that. We’re preparing as hard as we can for each week to compete and win each week, and we’re just going to see where that takes us.”