THE SIX NATIONS might feel like the only show in town at the moment for most rugby supporters, and after that there is the not so small matter of both Scottish pro teams competing in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup in the last weekend in March, which means the bread-and-butter of the Guinness PRO14 tends to be given only cursory attention.
However, Fraser McKenzie says that the next three weeks are going to season-defining for Edinburgh in terms of not only their play-off aspirations, but also establishing the strength in depth in the squad required to allow the team to continue they upward trajectory they have been on since the arrival of Richard Cockerill in the capital at the start of last season.
Edinburgh are currently third in Conference B of the PRO14, only one point behind Benetton, but only one point ahead of both Scarlets and Ulster. They face the Dragons at Murrayfield on Friday night, then Cardiff Blues at the same venue on the Saturday night after the France v Scotland and Wales v England games [how about that for crazy fixture scheduling!], followed by a trip across to Italy to take on Benetton on 2nd March.
“It is almost like three cup finals if you look at it, we need points from all three if we want to be in those play-offs,” said McKenzie. “But there is no extra pressure on us because we know we are good enough to be a play-off side and we know we have a good squad. We are looking forward to the games rather than being nervous.
“We approach it like any other period, we are very detailed in what we do, we respect teams and do our due diligence to go out there to get a win, but results have gone against us in key games so far this season and we need some results in the next three weeks.”
McKenzie referenced Edinburgh’s defeat to the Southern Kings at the end of January as one game in particular which sticks in the craw. They had beaten the same opposition 38-0 at Murrayfield three weeks earlier but in the return match they surrendered two late tries which cost them the match. The away team weren’t helped by an ineffectual refereeing performance at scrum time from Welsh whistler Dan Jones, but McKenzie’s assessment is revealing of the no-excuses culture fostered by Cockerill.
“We made individual errors that cost us, and ultimately it was our decisions that hampered us out there. It was unprofessional that we managed to lose that one.”
Despite that, Edinburgh are still very much in the hunt for a play-off finish.
“In years gone by, this stage of the season was almost always dead rubber time for Edinburgh, but last year and this we know we are right in the mix,” said McKenzie.“With the Scotland guys away, there is a big reliance on those of us left to go out there and get results and that does create a buzz about the place.
“This is a big opportunity, whether a young guy or old guy, to stake a claim for the big matches that are around the corner,” he added. “Every game is huge, so you have to play well to try and keep your place and who is to say the Scotland guys are guaranteed their spots when they come back in – that is not the way it works.
“It is good to put the coaches under pressure to have to make those decisions, in the past we haven’t had the squad to do that.”
Edinburgh struggled during November, when the absence of internationalists was compounded by an unusually long injury-list, which included Mckenzie himself, who was sidelined for three months with a knee injury. While there are still some significant figures out of action, the 30-year-old lock believes the squad is generally in much better shape during this international window.
“We really had an excess of injuries in that period, now we are starting to see guys coming back into training,” he said. “You look at who is coming back, and you think two, three, four weeks down the line we are going to have a hell of a competition for places ahead of the European quarter-final.
“Everyone wants to play in that one, but we are respectful of the Dragons and we are focused on this one and want to get the win.”