RICHARD Cockerill has been careful to play down expectations ever since he took over at Edinburgh last summer, perhaps conscious that there were times in the past when his players got ahead of themselves and allowed a touch of complacency to creep in.
As results have got better, however, and those same players have displayed a humble, hard-working approach, the head coach has had to revise those expectations upwards.
The only way is up?
We’re a bottom-four team, he said early on, as a public reminder to his team of the long climb ahead. Ulster will probably be too strong over the course of the PRO14 campaign, he suggested when Edinburgh were in fourth place in Conference B and edging ever closer to the Irish province. We’ve given ourselves a fighting chance, he has admitted latterly, as his team have opened up a nine-point lead over Ulster, albeit having played a game more.
So how much better can Edinburgh get? As he looked forward to Friday’s league match against Connacht in Galway, Cockerill admitted to being uncertain. “When I arrived I wasn’t sure where we’d end up, and if I’m honest I’m still not sure where we’ll end up,” he said.
“We’ve got a good group of players, good people behind the scenes, and the club’s vibrant. People enjoy coming in to train and be part of the environment. If the guys are happy because they’re getting some reward for playing hard and improving, then the results will come.
“With our results we’re seeing guys get recognised for the national team, and we’re building as a club, but nothing is solved. We need to keep building because it’s going to take three, four, five years to make this team really competitive within the competition.”
By ‘really competitive’ Cockerill can only mean contending for the title, because Edinburgh are certainly competing very well in their quest for the top-three finish that would take them into the play-offs. Fourth-placed Ulster would close the gap in Conference B to four points if they win their game in hand with a bonus point, but Edinburgh could stretch their lead again when the teams meet at BT Murrayfield in a fortnight.
The task in hand
Winning in Galway tonight will be a big ask, as it always is, but Cockerill’s players are on a high after winning their last five games, including last week’s 12-6 victory over Munster. Edinburgh have by and large played an enterprising, attacking brand of rugby this season, but that home win showcased their newfound versatility, as they took a stranglehold on the contest with a more conservative approach.
The coach will still allow his players the licence to attack with flair when appropriate, but tonight the game plan is likely to be similar to the one which brought success a week ago. “You have to make good choices, and when it’s on to run and play we will. It’ll be a bit like Munster last week when we chose not to overplay last week because Munster are a team who want to kick the ball to your end of the pitch and let you overcommit and play suicidal rugby by trying to run the ball out from deep. So we chose to play differently last week and while it wasn’t particularly pretty it was effective at getting the result. I think it’ll be pretty much the same tomorrow, where we’ll play tactics that suit the weather and the opposition.
“We’ve tried to concentrate on playing as well as we can and not worry about the league table because for us trying to get to the play-offs was unrealistic two months ago, because you’ve got to be better than Scarlets and Leinster and Ulster. But we’ve managed to beat Munster, Ulster and Leinster, which is a good run, and the players are getting confident.
“The reality is that we’ve put ourselves in a position where we have the potential to be in a quarter-final, and for us to be in a play-off spot, which is brilliant. When was the last time Edinburgh did that? But we’ve got to play it game by game, because we can still get caught by Ulster easily. We still have to play them.
“I’m not sure what’s realistic for us now. We’re just working as hard as we can to learn and to create a culture and environment that understand show to win games and hopefully compete in play-offs.”
Back in the fold
Scotland loosehead prop Darryl Marfo returns after injury to the Edinburgh line-up, which shows five changes from the Munster match. Simon Berghan resumes on the other side of the front row and Grant Gilchrist is back at lock in the other two alterations to the pack, while Nathan Fowles takes over at scrum-half and Blair Kinghorn returns at full-back. Dougie Fife, the last line of defence last week, moves to the wing to accommodate Kinghorn, while Jason Harries drops out.
Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion, the two Connacht players involved in Ireland’s win over England last weekend, sit this one out. Aki is still undergoing return-to-play protocols after sustaining a head knock in the Twickenham triumph, while Marmion is rested, as is national squad member Ultan Dillane.
Even without those three, the home team are slight favourites for the game, although their backs coach, Nigel Carolan, is well aware that Edinburgh are a far tougher proposition than was once the case. “They made life really difficult for Munster last Friday night,” he said. “They turned them over several times at the breakdown and that’s uncharacteristic for Munster.
“You can see that there’s a real bite to them; there’s a real high level of fitness and physicality. They’re a tough team to play against. They’re very direct and confrontational and they’re a tough team to break down. That’s where our biggest focus has been this week, particularly around the breakdown.”
Edinburgh (v Connacht at The Sportsground, Galway, Friday 7.35pm): B Kinghorn; D Fife, M Bennett, C Dean, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, N Fowles; D Marfo, N Cochrane, S Berghan, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, J Hardie, W Mata. Subs: C Fenton, J Lay, W Nel, L Carmichael, C du Preez, S Kennedy, D Weir, P Burleigh.
Connacht: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, E Griffin, T Farrell, M Healy; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, G Thornbury, Q Roux, E McKeon, J Butler, S O’Brien. Subs: D Heffernan, D Coulson, D Robertson-McCoy, J Cannon, E Masterson, J Mitchell, C Ronaldson, D Leader.