EDINBURGH head coach Richard Cockerill has stated that he is comfortable with how his squad is shaping up for next season, despite around 22 members of the current squad coming out of contract at the end of this season, with no re-signings or new signings announced so far.
Props Simon Berghan, Allan Dell, Rory Sutherland and Murray McCallum, hooker Ross Ford, second-rows Grant Gilchrist, Fraser McKenzie and Callum Hunter-Hill, flankers Hamish Watson and Luke Hamilton, scrum-halves Henry Pyrgos, Sean Kennedy and Nathan Fowles and wingers Darcy Graham and Damian Hoyland, are among the players who are coming to the end of their current deals.
The situation is complicated by they fact Jonny Petrie, the club’s managing director since the summer of 2015 – who would previously have been the point of contact between the coach and the SRU contracts panel which approves or rejects all player offers – has now left the role to become Chief Executive at Ulster in the New Year and has not et been replaced, although Cockerill says that is a nuisance rather than a major problem.
“It is a little bit painful because we have to go find someone else,” conceded Cockerill. “He’s done a good job here and we’ve got a good relationship – but there is a strong enough foundation in place for other people to pick up some of the contracting parts.
“I’m pretty sure of what I would like – although it might not be what I can have – so from a contracting point of view and a retention point of view, as has been well documented in the last couple of days, we’re well into that, as we were last year.
“There will be natural change [in the squad ahead of next season] because that’s professional sport, but you want to keep change minimum if you can,” Cockerill added. “You always want to be better but there were 16 changes – players left – last year, so I’d expect it to be a lot, lot less than that [this time].
“You want to keep your squad together and build it so that you are not coming into pre-season and starting from scratch again.”
Victims of their own success
While Cockerill insists that there is no panic, there is no escaping the fact that Edinburgh are likely to become victims of their own recent success, with the value of their players growing in tandem with their experience and profile.
“There won’t be huge change, but we can only control what we can control,” he conceded. “We have a budget to stick to but when you get players better they want more money. Guys come through and play in the national side, and younger guys come through and play in the pro team, and that all adds to their value. That jigsaw of keeping everyone together and in situ is difficult.
“It is a World Cup year which will [also] make it tricky because there will be 31 players go to Japan, and probably 10, 11 or 12 of those guys will come from this squad, so we have to navigate that as soon as PRO14 decides what the season structure is and where the seasons starts and finishes,” he added, before confirming that he does not expect to be given extra cash to cover the loss of players during that World Cup period.
“We’ll promote from within the playing group. We’ve got good depth in our squad – some non-Scottish qualified players and some you lads who won’t be going to the World Cup – and if everyone is fit for the World Cup then we’ll probably have less in the Scotland squad than we do at the moment. Remember the World Cup squad is 31 and Gregor took 45 in that initial squad. There is a little way to go yet, there is a Six Nations where somebody will come from leftfield and put their hand up for selection.”
Of more immediate concern for the coach is Sunday afternoon’s trip to Rodney Parade to take on the Dragons. Edinburgh will take confidence from recent positive performances against Montpellier and Toulon in Europe, and against the Scarlets in the PRO14, but must not forget that in amongst those important steps forward was a fairly calamitous stumble when they lost 34-16 away to Zebre.
Slaying the Dragons
“This is a very important game for us,” said Cockerill. “Scarlets are playing Ulster [on Friday night] so they’ll knock each other off which means if we can get the right result at Dragons we will be into the mix for the play-offs, and ready to go to Munster five days later.
“It is about having that expectation to perform and win when we’ve got this amount of guys missing. We’ll probably miss 15 or 16, including injuries, who are very, very good players – but I expect us to perform and I expect us to win on Sunday because we’ve got a good group of guys who showed what they can do against the Scarlets.”
Eight Edinburgh players have been named in the Scotland squad to take on Argentina on Saturday, which means Berghan, WP Nel, Stuart McInally, Dell, Gilchrist, Jamie Ritchie, Watson and Blair Kinghorn won’t be available be involved against the Dragons, but Cockerill is hopeful of welcoming McCallum, Ben Toolis and Graham back into the fold.
Ford, Pyrgos and Dougie Fife, who were named in Gregor Townsend’s initial Scotland squad ahead of the start of this Autumn series, were released back to Edinburgh after the Wales game.
Stand-off Jaco van der Walt is expected to be fit and available for selection when the team is named on Friday. However, Matt Scott (concussion), Lewis Carmichael (concussion) and Luke Crosbie (broken jaw) will not be available this week but are targeting Edinburgh’s European double-header against Newcastle Falcons at the start of December.
Magnus Bradbury (shoulder), Mark Bennett (ruptured hamstring) John Barclay (ruptured Achilles Tendon) and McKenzie (knee) are longer term. They hope to be back early in the New Year.