EDINBURGH find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being top of PRO14 Conference B, and Richard Cockerill is determined that they should not get caught up in any feelings of anxiety about staying there. A home semi-final in the play-offs is the very desirable prize for being at the summit come the end of the regular season, but, in a bid to keep the pressure off his players, Cockerill is insisting that their main goal should simply be qualifying for those play-offs. Any more specific target, he reckons, can wait until that broader objective has been achieved.
“We’re not concentrating on being top or anything,” Cockerill said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we keep our focus, keep preparing properly, and training well.
“I’m not worried about top spot. And I don’t want the players to worry about, ‘We’re top and we’ve got to stay there’. We’ve just got to keep preparing and performing. There’ll be some bumps in the road. We’ve lost three games in the league, we’ve managed to pick up two losing bonus points, we’ve lost to Leinster and got nothing – but the rest of the time we’ve got points out of games.
“So I’m not going to put the heat on the players about finishing top. If we do, then great, but if we’re second or third, great. We want to be in Europe and we want to be in play-offs – to get to knockouts, we’re good enough to certainly compete.”
Cockerill expects to lose “a forward pack, and some” to the Scotland squad for Friday’s home game against Connacht, who will only have a couple of their first choices missing. The head coach’s main concern could be at tighthead prop if both Simon Berghan and Willem Nel travel to Italy on international duty. Lock will also be a worry if, as expected, Grant Gilchrist is also selected for Scotland – especially as Fraser McKenzie is out after injuring his shoulder against Scarlets.
But Saturday’s 14-9 win at Scarlets was further evidence of the increasing strength in depth of the Edinburgh squad, as well as of their greater mental resilience. Nick Haining and Luke Crosbie are likely to be released by national coach Gregor Townsend, as they were last week, and they and others have been on impressive form lately.
Conditions at Murrayfield for the Connacht match are expected to be almost as bad as in Llanelli last weekend, but Cockerill expects his players will be unfazed by that, just as they were in Llanelli. “It’s going to be wet and windy. It will be a little bit more sheltered, hopefully, in this stadium, but same as last week – we prepare a game plan to deal with the weather. Most of that is mental. If we chase and tackle and our set piece is good and we embrace the weather . . . . It’s going to be poor conditions to play in, so how do we win? How do we take as many points out of the game?
“I don’t care if it’s a 3-0 and it’s the rubbishest game we’ve ever seen: take the points and move on. The shinier days will be down the road in a play-off, hopefully.
“We can’t control the weather. If it’s a nice calm day, and dry, we can play a more expansive game, as we like to.
“It’s good to have a team that’s capable of going ‘Well, it’s going to be rubbish, and we’re going to chase kicks and make tackles and kick the ball down their end and make them play with it rather than ourselves – and end up with the result’. That’s the reality. In the end no-one cares apart from . . . . the only stat is the score.”