THERE have been many attempts over the years to explain Edinburgh Rugby’s chronic underachievement. Richard Cockerill’s suggestion that the team lacked an abrasive edge because some of the players were “polite public schoolboys” has been made before, as has the claim – also made by the coach earlier this week – that it has something to do with the city being “a nice place to grow up”.
It has been argued as well that the team lacks identity, with one of the reasons advanced for that being its base at Murrayfield – something that Edinburgh themselves have tried to address by moving some of their games to Myreside. But no matter if you see such arguments as competing or complementary, or even if you have an entirely different explanation, there is no denying that things have got better this season.
Cockerill’s suggestion that his side need more devil in them may well be correct, but they have already become significantly less angelic than they were when the coach arrived in the summer. No-one in the squad is getting ahead of themselves, being all too aware that complacency is another of the charges to have been laid against them in seasons past. Nonetheless, they can justifiably point to their results in both the PRO14 and the Challenge Cup and assert that there has been a significant improvement.
Those results, of course, reflect improved performances, both by the team as a whole and by individuals. Some, perhaps most, first-team regulars have been playing close to their best – and not only for Edinburgh, but also on the highest stage.
Stuart McInally, for example, started all three of Scotland’s Autumn Tests, scoring two tries against Samoa and once against the Wallabies to confirm his status as the country’s leading hooker. That position will be challenged by Fraser Brown over the coming 1872 Cup games, but the 27-year-old McInally is certainly the man in possession.
For McInally, such individual progress goes hand in hand with the overall improvement made by the team. “It feels like a new club,” he said. “Things are just better – everyone is working harder and the standards are higher. I just feel we’ve got a really good foundation now we can grow this club from.
“It’s part of the reason I decided to stay for another two years and I actually feel really confident that the foundations are there for us to grow. We’re not going to win the league this year, and that’s OK: we’re looking at building somewhere to grow from, and I feel that we’re doing well.”
Opponents trying to stop McInally on the charge would never accuse him of being too polite, but the former head boy at George Watson’s College can nonetheless understand where Cockerill is coming from with his insistence that Edinburgh need more devil. “Yeah, I would agree with that,” he said. “That’s certainly one of the things we can get better at.
“We’ve shown over the last couple of years, though, that we’ve had some really good big physical performances. I do agree that we need to be a bit more devilish, and the best sides in the league are a bit bullyish at times and that’s where I feel we need to get to. But where we are this year compared to where we were at this time last year, we’re night and day in terms of a lot of things.”
The outside world invariably sees the demanding side of Cockerill, but the players also see – and appreciate – the coach’s supportive approach. As someone who had not previously established himself as first-choice hooker following his switch from the back row several years ago, McInally is particularly thankful for the trust placed in him by the Englishman, who was himself a hooker.
“This season [with Edinburgh] was the first time I’ve really had consistent starts, and that led into the Scotland stuff, which was brilliant, so I’m pretty happy with how it’s going. I’ve got a lot of confidence from the faith that’s been shown in me here as well. I’ve actually had some consistent game time and a consistent batch of starts.
“It’s not always been perfect, but I’ve been playing every week, which has been so invaluable for me – the first time, really, since I moved to hooker that I’ve had more than two starts in a row. It’s nice to have had time to settle into the No 2 jersey, and I feel more comfortable than ever.
“I guess I just feel very comfortable at hooker now. It’s not new any more: I’m quite comfortable being on the sideline throwing in; I’m quite comfortable being in the front row of the scrum.
“I think my scrummaging has improved, and my problem-solving. Before, especially in the early years, if the scrum wasn’t going well I wouldn’t really know what was going on – I would just know that we were going backwards and my face was getting dragged through the mud.
“Whereas now Cockers has helped a lot with that and just in terms of what I feel from the left or the right and little adjustments I can make with my two props to counter that. My problem-solving on the move has been better.
“I was always told that the move to hooker was going to take time. I didn’t really like that, I wanted to do it quicker, but now, looking back, I realise you did need the time just to go through all the experiences. You can get taught so much just by someone telling you ‘do this in the scrum’, but until you actually go through it yourself and feel it . . . . I understand it needed to be a long process.”
Meanwhile, back-row forwards Luke Crosbie and Bill Mata have become the latest players to re-sign with Edinburgh. The 20-year-old Crosbie, an Academy player hitherto, has signed a two-and-a-half-year professional contract which comes into effect immediately – recognition of the rapid progress he has made this season. Fijian international Mata, 26, has agreed a two-year extension.