RICHARD Cockerill has insisted he will keep on campaigning for Edinburgh to be given a fairer deal from referees – while also trying to improve his team to the extent that close calls from officials will not determine whether they win or lose.
The Edinburgh coach has been in touch with Greg Garner, the PRO14’s head of elite referees, to explain his belief that on-field rulings too often go in favour of the teams seen as bigger or better – and against sides such as his own. Yesterday Cockerill declined to divulge details of what he said was a private conversation with Garner, but he did restate his conviction, and joked that only drastic action from the authorities would prevent him from speaking out about it.
“My own opinion is that the teams that are supposed to win get refereed more favourably than the teams that aren’t supposed to win,” the former England international said. “I’m never going to blame the referee for the result – we’ve got to be good enough to control that ourselves.
“You want it to be refereed on its merits: so referee what you see, and not what you think should happen. It happens both ways – I’ve had situations at Leicester and Toulon where referees come to the home ground and referee differently because they don’t want to seem to be intimidated by the stadium.
“It depends which side you’re fighting for. My agenda is Edinburgh. I’m not going to be a coach who says ‘That’s just the way it is, so let’s accept it’. I’m going to stand my corner for my team, and I think there’s a fair argument to discuss.
“There’s two parts. There’s knowing the nuances of the referee, which we do, but also playing well enough as a team – there’s going to be a 10 or 15 per cent swing either way with the referee’s decisions. You want the big moments right, but we have to play well enough. There’s a lot of things that we can do better. However, wherever we play, I want us to be refereed fairly, on the merits of what we put on the field that day.
“There’s nothing wrong with asking that. And if there is, then I’ll just keep saying it until they shoot me. It’s the only time I’ll be quiet, if I’m dead. It’s not a problem for me. That’s my job – to make sure that this team gets as fair a crack at the job as the next team.”
When it comes to the other part of his job, making sure that his team wins no matter the circumstances, Cockerill is cautiously optimistic that things are going in the right direction. If Edinburgh beat Zebre at Myreside on Friday, they will have won three out of their opening six games in the PRO14: that would not be a horrendous start to the season, but the head coach is all too well aware that it could have been better, if his players had held on to the solid lead they established a few weeks ago against Benetton rather than going down to a humiliating home defeat.
“We’ve had two good results at the start, Treviso was disappointing to say the least, and the last two weeks have been tough,” Cockerill continued. “Scarlets we felt the scoreline didn’t show the effort put in. Then we felt at the weekend although we probably didn’t deserve to win, because Leinster had the lion’s share of the game, we learned how to stay in the game.
“So it’s not all doom and gloom – there’s lots of good parts we’ve been doing. We’ve just got to start to put those parts together and learn those lessons. The sooner we learn those lessons and cut out those small errors that cost us dearly, the better we’ll be.
“The key parts in the last two weeks are that we’ve shown we can stay in the battle against good teams. Now we need to play with that intensity and intent, with and without the ball, when it’s a team we should beat.”
Zebre do remain a team that Edinburgh should beat, but their 27-23 win over previously undefeated Ulster at the weekend was a reminder of their ability to spring a surprise. “It was a bit like us against Treviso,” Cockerill said of that game. “If you’re not accurate with the ball . . . . Ulster turned the ball over 15 times, mainly of their own doing; they gave an intercept away with nine minutes to go when they were on the attack to win the game.
“Zebre are attacking from everywhere and risking their arm to score points. If you give them oxygen they’ll keep battling.
“You have to be accurate; you can’t have mad moments where guys get sent to the bin. That puts pressure on you. Against Treviso we had a man in the bin for no particular reason – it was a refereeing error in the end, but that’s by the by.
“If you get those small moments right you put them under pressure and make them play differently. The Italian sides have got good players, they just haven’t been able to be consistent. Clearly once they have a little belief they’re a far more dangerous prospect.”
International Sevens squad member James Johnstone, who made his first start of the season for Edinburgh in Dublin, will again be involved this weekend. Dougie Fife is also expected to be involved again, as Cockerill continues to hold on to contracted sevens players who he feels merit a place in his matchday squad.