EDINBURGH’S progress these last two and a half years under Richard Cockerill, after several seasons stuck in the doldrums, is likely to have a significant consequence in terms of more players from the capital than ever before being targeted by international call-ups for the 2020 Six Nations, which gets under way in just under five weeks’ time.
Depending on injury, form and what national head coach Gregor Townsend and his new look management team have in mind for this Six Nations, Edinburgh could conceivably lose Jamie Bhatti, Stuart McInally, WP Nel, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Magnus Bradbury, Henry Pyrgos, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett, Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn could be missing from the club for some – if not all – of the eight week block from the weekend before the championship starts through to the climatic weekend.
Cockerill has recruited aggressively during his time at the club. The summer after his first season focussed on clearing out the deadwood and replacing it with players who could buy in to and deliver on his vision for what the team should be about, whereas last summer he was able to start adding strength in depth with winger Eroni Sau, scrum-half Nic Groom, hooker Mike Willemse, back-row Nick Haining, locks Murray Douglas and Sam Thomson [both on short-term deals] and loose-head Bhatti among the summer of 2019 recruits to have already made their mark this season. So, he is significantly better placed than he was two years ago to deal with an increase in international call-ups.
He has also been helped by the likes of centre George Taylor and scrum-half Charlie Shiel getting closer to coming of age as pro players, and also the likes of Bennett, Scott, Damian Hoyland, Lewis Carmichael and hopefully John Barclay, putting serious injury disruption behind them this season – but the nature of any ambitious coach is that he is never quite satisfied with what he has got.
And having previously coached at two of the wealthiest clubs in Europe in Leicester Tigers and Toulon, it is inevitable that the ferociously ambitious former England hooker is slightly frustrated that Scottish Rugby does not have quite as deep pockets as he has been used to in the past.
“I would always want a little bit more,” he replied, when asked if he was confident that Edinburgh has the strength in depth to cope with this Six Nations window. “We are losing more and more players all the time. That’s the dynamic with the landscape shifting for this team. With the budget we have we need to have a good balance.
“I think we play Scarlets, Connacht and Cardiff [during that Six Nations window] who are all going to be around us [in the league]. If we lose 10 or 12 or the whole forward pack for three important games, that is going to be tough. Scarlets will lose a lot but the other two won’t, so we’ve just got to keep working hard, keep preparing as well as we can and see where it takes us.”
Cockerill can at least look forward to the start of 2020 in the knowledge that momentum is on his side, after his team bounced back from an agonising defeat to Glasgow Warriors just before Christmas with an impressive 29-19 home win in the rematch against their nearest and dearest rivals at Murrayfield on Saturday night – a result which lifts the team to second in Conference B of the PRO14, just two points behind Munster.
“We have to make sure we keep our consistency – it doesn’t matter if we are top after round nine – that’s irrelevant,” he stressed, clearly keen to keep a lid on soaring expectations. “It is about being in the top three after round 21 that matters and that’s what we have to concentrate on.
“Nothing gets given out tonight. In Europe, we are in the challenge cup – it’s not the Champions Cup – so we know where we sit. We will keep developing this team.
“That game was a big step forward for us,” he added. “We had a big crowd and there was pressure on us to perform – and we performed. Even if we hadn’t won tonight, it was one hell of a game. A lot of people came to watch not knowing who was going to win and it was a bloody good game of rugby.”