SEVERAL members of the Scotland World Cup squad could be back in PRO14 action for Edinburgh on Saturday night, although Richard Cockerill has also accepted that even some of those who only played one or two of the pool games in Japan will need a decent break before returning to play. Henry Pyrgos, Magnus Bradbury and Blair Kinghorn were all mentioned by the coach yesterday as the three in line to play against Scarlets at the weekend, though Cockerill joked that scrum-half Pyrgos, a late call-up to replace the injured Ali Price, had never really been away.
“There will be a couple of guys hopefully involved this weekend that didn’t play a huge amount,” Cockerill said. “Pyrgos is already in [the squad]. I forgot about him – I didn’t really count him, to be fair, he just went for a week’s break, I think. No, we’re hoping to have Kinghorn and Bradbury come back into the squad. We’ll see.
“Some guys are having a bit more time because they feel they need it. World Cups, long tours, Lions tours – guys react differently, so even some guys that haven’t had a huge amount of game time need a bit more time away from rugby cos they’ve been together four months, they’ve been away from home, they’ve been living in hotels.
“Some of that’s not just the physical parts, it’s the emotional parts of getting them fresh mentally to come back and play what’s going to be a big season. Big for us as a club, but then there’s the Six Nations, which will be tough, and then there’s a summer tour which is going to be probably the toughest summer tour in the world with South Africa, South Africa, New Zealand. It’s not an easy tour after a World Cup year and a Six Nations. We’ve got to be careful that we manage those guys correctly.”
Having a break after just three rounds of PRO14 fixtures seemed unnecessary to Cockerill, but he is confident that the squad have made good use of the time. He will demand a significant improvement on Edinburgh’s last outing, the loss to Leinster, and reckons that nothing less will be good enough against Scarlets.
“We had three good training days, had a long weekend, and we’re in back in for a good long run now until the Six Nations. Thirteen games on the bounce and we’ve got to integrate the Scotland boys back in. Just keep trucking along – we’ve got to make sure we put in a performance on Saturday and take the points out of the game.
“They’re a good side, they’ve got good players and they’ve had as many missing as ourselves. They’re unbeaten, they’ve got a new coach who has a very expansive way of playing. They’re pretty much like ourselves: they’re pretty functional, they look to get the ball wide, very hard off the line in defence – we’ve had a couple of games already where teams do that.
“We know what’s coming. We need to bounce back from a pretty average performance in parts at Leinster. There were some good parts at Leinster too, so we’ve got to put that together.”
Earlier on Saturday, there will be the small matter of a World Cup semi-final for Cockerill to watch – the clash between England and New Zealand which he sees as the meeting of the two strongest teams in the tournament. “Do I fancy England’s chances? Yeah, 100 per cent. They’re a very good side and, purely from a rugby point of view, I’ve got to be honest and say England v New Zealand would be better as the final.
“They are the two best teams at the moment. But England are more than good enough to beat New Zealand. They’ve got an all-round power game to do it. But, then again, if New Zealand get it right, then they’ll be more than good enough to beat England. So it’ll be a great game.”
Cockerill was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in the games between the two countries when, in 1997, he faced up to All Blacks hooker Norm Hewitt as the New Zealanders performed their traditional pre-match haka. He was accused then of disrespecting the pre-match ritual – and Hewitt certainly seemed perturbed by having his opposite number right in his face. But, while accepting that his behaviour back then may have been a little rash, Cockerill still believes that opponents should be entitled to react to the challenge of the haka by approaching fairly closely to it.
“The haka is a special thing for New Zealand, but it’s also a special thing within the sport and the game overall,” he added. “As a player, I always looked forward to facing it. My first time, I was probably a bit closer to it than I should have been.
“But it’s something that should be celebrated. I believe there’s as much psychological edge to be gained from facing it as there is doing it. It clearly means a lot to New Zealand, which is fine.
“Is it an advantage for them? I don’t know. The All Blacks used to get so psyched up doing it that they’d start games very poorly. They’ve had to do things around that to manage it.
“For me, I think it should be respected, but I also don’t think that you should have to stand 20 metres back away from it and just watch them. There obviously doesn’t need to be physical contact, but it is a war dance ultimately and it is a challenge that they’re laying down to you. They’re calling on their mana and their forefathers to come and help them and take the strength from the earth.
“I reckon you should be able to stand a metre away from them if you want to. You shouldn’t just have to stand 20 metres away. It’s a challenge to go into battle.”