ALL of a sudden, Richard Cockerill has real options in most positions. The Edinburgh coach revelled in casting his team as the underdogs from the moment he arrived in the Scottish capital at the start of last season, but those claims are beginning to sound pretty hollow.
When the infusion of belief, discipline and purpose Cockerill brought with him started to create an environment where sleeping giants such as Stuart McInally, Grant Gilchrist, Hamish Watson and Viliame Mata found a way of imposing themselves on games, the boisterous Englishman changed tack slightly by highlighting a lack of depth in the squad which would make it hard for them to be capable of more than isolated moments of excellence. But after five wins on the bounce, that doesn’t really figure either.
A virtuous circle has developed at Edinburgh whereby performance, results and individual player development are all pushing each other on to create a real winning culture which bodes well for not only the second half of this current season but for the campaigns which will follow.
At the start of December, Cockerill took a team across to Cork to play Munster without a raft of his leading players – including Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham, Henry Pyrgos, Pierre Schoeman, Allan Dell, McInally, WP Nel, Gilchrist, Ben Toolis, Jamie Ritchie, Watson and Mata – who were all being rested ahead of a hectic December schedule consisting of back-to-back games against Newcastle Falcons in the Champions Cup and Glasgow Warriors in the PRO14/1872 Cup.
“We haven’t the size of squad to cope with international call-ups and all the injuries we have. If we didn’t have the injuries we’ve got we could put a very different side out, but we’re at where we’re at and we should all understand that and get behind the team,” said the coach at the time.
It was no surprise when his youngsters lost 44-14, but an awful lot can changed in a month.
What a difference a month makes
Back then, Edinburgh hadn’t won on the road since the previous March. Now they have beaten both the Falcons and Warriors away from home – and while Saturday’s 38-0 victory with a very similar squad over a pretty ordinary Southern Kings outfit was at their Murrayfield base, it was still a very clear indication that the club’s full-house of victories during December has generated a self-belief which is permeating throughout the whole squad.
With Edinburgh’s big shots needing to recharge batteries again ahead of taking on Toulon in the Champions Cup next weekend, youngsters such as George Taylor, Charlie Shiel, Callum Hunter-Hill, Luke Crosbie, Ally Miller and Cammy Fenton were handed a chance this weekend to show that they are ready to push for more regular game time – and while it was not a complete performance from the home side, there was clear evidence of significant progress being made in terms of expectation levels throughout the squad. This Edinburgh team were there to do a job, and they did it with ruthless professionalism.
Having said all that, it should be noted that there was considerably more experience in this Edinburgh side than the one which faced Munster a month ago, with the presence of internationalists such as Ross Ford, Simon Berghan, Ritchie and Mata adding pedigree to the pack.
Not to mention Fraser McKenzie, the second-row who captained the side last season but has been side-lined since the start of October with a knee injury – and is now ready to join Hunter-Hill in putting pressure on Gilchrist and Toolis for a starting slot in the Edinburgh engine-room.
“It’s a difficult time to come back,” said the 30-year-old, who signed a two-year contract extension with the club last week. “It’s unfortunate as well because we did reasonably well last year, then I had an end of season shoulder operation which went well, and five games in to this season someone falls on you and it was as simple as that.
“But look, I’ve trained hard to get back and that game was what I needed: 80 minutes under my belt. It’s one thing to run pitch lengths and getting fit that way but there’s a difference between front five forwards hitting mauls and rucks for 80 minutes.
“I was technically fit for the first Glasgow game, but you need a certain amount of training in you. Over the Christmas period you do train but there are just not enough days, so the volume was not there and the decision was made to keep it how it was for those games and target this one.
“It’s a good feeling at the club just now,” he added, turning his attention to Saturday’s victory. “The team takes every game as it comes and we train hard, that is the main thing. I think it was a professional performance and coming off the back of four big games in the Christmas period.
“There was a lot of pressure on us to perform and I think we did that. It could have been a banana skin – the game where guys become complacent – so I think that was the next step for us. We want to become a consistent side and we are on that track.
“I always knew the team had the ability. There are a lot of quality players here. People talk about Glasgow, and Glasgow have a great squad – but so do we. It’s just changing that mindset about the club. It’s probably been like that for the past decade and it’s now time to steer that ship in the right direction.
“We are getting there. We’re not there yet and Cockers will say that as well. But we are moving in the right direction and we are taking every week as it comes.
“This week there was pressure because we were favourites to win. Last week there was pressure because Glasgow are deemed the number one team in Scotland. And next week it’s the same thing, when we go to Toulon – world beaters.
“That is the way it is. We have to go out and establish our game, put our game on the table.”