RICHARD Cockerill has spoken publicly for the first time about his decision to sign centre Jordan Venter, insisting that the imminent arrival of the South African teenager should not be seen as a snub to young Scots. Edinburgh’s announcement last month that they had signed Venter provoked considerable criticism from those who argued that home-based talent should be promoted to the professional ranks ahead of promising youngsters from overseas, but the head coach believes he has to strike a balance between helping domestic players develop and the need to ensure his team are as competitive as possible.
“We’ve got to explore these avenues around South African schoolboys or players from all over the world, because that’s the nature of the business we’re in,” Cockerill said. “If he’s better than young Scottish players, he’ll get the opportunity. If Scottish lads are better than him and coming through the system – and we’ve got some very good ones coming through the system – they can play in front of him.
“It’s about creating a deeper squad with the budget we have and create as much competition as we can. Look, he’s an 18-year-old lad who will come and he wants to play professional rugby, and we’re going to give him an opportunity and see where he gets to.”
Venter’s life was hit by tragedy three years ago when he was a passenger in a car crash which resulted in the deaths of three family members. He was left with a number of serious injuries including a fractured skull, and had to embark on a long programme of recovery before he was even able to lead a normal life again, never mind being ready to return to playing rugby.
“It’s an amazing story, really, which clearly has a bearing on how he approaches life and the opportunities he wants to take,” Cockerill continued. “So fair play to him. He’s physically very well developed, and after reading [about his past] you can obviously understand why.
“He [Venter] has an English mother, so he has a British passport, so he can get into the country – a lot of these players cannot get into the country because they’re not eligible to get in. In five years’ time he can play for Scotland. In two years’ time, if he kills it here, he can go and play for England or South Africa. At the moment he’s still a young man, he’s never played at this level, so we’ve no idea what he’s going to be like at senior end.”
Having re-signed the bulk of his out-of-contract players before rugby was halted by the coronavirus crisis, and having recruited Venter and Fijian prop Lee-Roy Atalifo, Cockerill is well advanced in his preparations for next season. The priority now is to secure the services of an experienced stand-off as competition for Jaco van der Walt if, as expected, Simon Hickey leaves. The coach confirmed that Jono Lance of Worcester is a potential target, while Scotland Under-20 cap Nathan Chamberlain has also been considered, although if he joined it would initially be as back-up rather than as a regular member of the matchday 23.
“We’ve been looking at our 10 [ie stand-off] options and Jono has been one of them,” Cockerill said of Lance. “Along with looking at guys like Nathan Chamberlain and other guys who are Scottish qualified.”
In addition to Venter, Atalifo and a stand-off, Cockerill should still have the space in his squad and the cash in his budget for another couple of signings. Ayrshire Bulls and Glasgow lock Marshall Sykes is one player who could be a target: with Sam Thomson, Stan South and Murray Douglas all having arrived on short-term deals last season, the second-row is the area of the Edinburgh pack most in need of reinforcement.
Edinburgh are expected to publish a full list of departures later this week, with only a couple of questions still waiting to be answered. We learned at the start of last month that props Pietro Ceccarelli and Jack Stanley were leaving for Brive and Gloucester respectively, and the head coach revealed last week that John Barclay would not be an Edinburgh player next season. It remains to be seen whether centre Matt Scott also departs, but there is now little doubt that Hickey has played his last game for Edinburgh, two years after joining from Bordeaux.
“His father isn’t very well, he’s got quite poor health, and Simon asked if he could go home because that was very important to him,” Cockerill continued. “It made perfect sense for him to do that, but everybody else [in the squad] is in Scotland.
“We’ll probably be a couple of players lighter from a numbers point of view,” the coach continued when asked about his squad as a whole. “We’ve done everything we can to keep all our best players and there are some important Test players who have re-signed for next season and beyond.
“Ninety-five plus per cent of that squad will be staying. We’ve had a lot of guys come in and out through injuries – Sam Thomson, Stan South, Matt Smith. The squad’s sort of inflated as the season’s gone on because of circumstances. There are some guys who will naturally drift away because they’ve been on loan, so we’ll be probably two players down for next season. We’ll probably have a squad of 45 or 46 and maybe one or two partnership players with Super6.”