GIVEN the ruthlessness with which Richard Cockerill has set about the task of reshaping his Edinburgh backline for next season, the two-year contract extension handed to Chris Dean in February is a ringing endorsement of the value the coach believes the 24-year-old brings to the squad.
While Phil Burleigh and Junior Rasolea been shown the door, Matt Scott has been brought home after two seasons with Gloucester and Juan Pablo Socino is moving up from Newcastle Falcons, and with Mark Bennett and James Johnstone also on the books there is going to be no shortage of competition for places in midfield when the 2018-19 campaign kicks off.
Perhaps life would be easier if he had stuck it out in the position he came through the ranks in, as a schoolboy at Edinburgh Academy. Then again, with the likes of Luke Crosbie, Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie and even Lewis Carmichael all maturing into excellent backrow options, he would have his work cut out there, too.
“In professional sport you always have someone chomping at your boots, that is just the nature of it. I have found my position – 12 is the position I am going to be pushing to play in the coming years – and I have opportunities at the moment to put my best foot forward for next season with Cockers knowing what I can do now,” says the player.
“There are some great guys coming into the club, there are some great guys leaving – that is the sad thing about it – but it’s just another challenge. It pushes you on.
“It’s all about working hard and playing the best you can while you are in the shirt because that is the main thing: form. If you are not in form then you won’t be playing. So, when it comes to next season, whoever is in form will be selected.”
A path less trodden
The vogue at the moment is for slightly under-sized back-row players to shuffle forward to hooker, but Dean hit the jackpot when he was shifted backwards to the wide-open spaces of the back-line.
“I think I get envious looks when its unit training and those guys are doing mauls and scrums and I am just throwing a ball about. A lot of players have changed forward, but some guys have changed backwards – Richie Vernon obviously changed from the backrow to the midfield at international level. It’s been good. I certainly don’t look back. I’d love another game in the backrow at some point – amateur or whatever – but that is for the long term.”
“I left school as a number eight and I went and did the 7s programme for two years, and in my second year as an elite development player there it was suggested that I might be a better centre in the 15s game. I had a few games for my club, Edinburgh Accies, then I played the Under-20s World Cup as a centre, and from there I went to Edinburgh.”
“Having done the 7s and all the fitness with that, I lost a bit of weight, got a little bit quicker and maybe my frame didn’t fill out as much as the current day backrow needs. Plus, the skills I worked on in sevens made me more suited to playing a role in the midfield at 15s.”
It hasn’t been a seamless transition; and he unintentionally delivers a damning indictment of the previous regime at Edinburgh when discussing why he feels he has really come of age as a centre during the last two seasons.
One of the most persistent criticisms of the Alan Solomons era is that the focus was too much on a narrowly focussed match-day group, and not developing the whole squad. If you were playing at the weekend then you were important – the rest were left largely to their own devices.
Learning the trade
“These last two years, I’ve had a fair bit of game time and I’ve really got to understand it a bit better. And I was actually coached to play there,” he says. “Having not been in the team in my first couple of years here, I don’t feel I got coached into the position as well as I have been in the last two years. It takes a lot of getting used to.”
Duncan Hodge was part of Solomons’ coaching team but seems to have been absolved of responsibility for the way the squad was mishandled during that period. The former Scotland stand-off continues to coach the back-line, and Dean is full of praise.
“Hodgey’s been great for me personally, helping me transition and become a better midfielder. We’ve done some one-to-one stuff. He’s always there to critique my game and give me positives when I’ve done things well,” he says.
Dean will be hoping that he gets a chance to lay down a marker for next season by being selected for next weekend’s 1872 Cup clash against Glasgow Warriors at Murrayfield. With Alex Dunbar fit again, Huw Jones being given a chance to play his way back into form this weekend against Ulster, and Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg buzzing at the moment, the challenge will be huge.
The Edinburgh centre scored the winner when 14-man Edinburgh defeated the Warriors at Murrayfield just before Christmas. It was a cheeky effort which owed a lot to his background as a forward. Having joined in to help propel a maul towards the opposition line, he found himself in possession when referee Frank Murphy raised his arm to indicate a penalty for the home team. Warriors winger Lee Jones – who was making the blindside – instinctively retreated back ten yards, but the whistle had not yet been blown, leaving a huge space for the quick-witted Dean to burst from the back of the heaving mass of bodies and touch down for the game’s decisive score.
“I was like: ‘What, he’s actually given that?’ It was a great moment. It wasn’t the prettiest try I have ever scored but it’s one that I will remember for a long, long time.”
Not only was it a key moment in a big match, it also looks like being a decisive moment in the development of this Edinburgh team under Cockerill.
“I think that game, with 14 guys for most of the 80-minutes, really showed just how much belief there is in our team. And it showed that will to win which, it could be argued, hasn’t been there at times in the past,” agrees Dean.
“Everyone in the crowd, when that red card was shown [to Simon Berghan after just four minutes] said: ‘Oh, oh, here we go’ – especially with them having scored so early on as well.”
“I think it did create a belief amongst ourselves. Whatever cards we are dealt we will fight through it, and we have done that in a lot of games since then – like Ulster away – really fighting in the last 10 minutes to get the win.”
A work in progress
But it doesn’t all come down to belief. Clarity of thought and an understanding of the game-plan has also been key. Rugby is not rocket-science, but it can quickly become very complicated if there is no community of purpose.
“The coaches give us a system and we know it works so let’s use it and stick to it. If everyone knows their roles and is willing to stick to their lines within the system then we will create opportunities when we are in the fight, especially in defence,” says Dean.
“Our attack is coming, as we saw last week [in a 52-14 drubbing of the Scarlets] albeit against a slightly weakened side. Throughout the season we have been scoring some really great tries, we have got some fantastic attackers.
“When I think back to watching Edinburgh when I was growing up, they were a really attacking side. They had some great players and there were some ridiculous scores. And then maybe we went through a phase of: ‘Let’s hold it all back, let’s try and win matches through game management’ – which nowadays doesn’t really work.
“Every team works so hard on their attack and the players are so powerful, quick and agile that tries are going to be scored. So, it’s something that we are putting a lot of effort into: create our attack, get our system going and go out there and have fun. Everyone likes scoring tries or being a part of scoring tries.
“Probably the biggest thing is people taking a real ownership and pride in their role. That is what Cockers puts across: hard work, earn your spot in the team, if you don’t play well you won’t be seen for a couple of weeks, and that’s what we want – a competitive environment.
“We have had a good season and we have made improvements,” he continues. “We have been working extremely hard throughout the year but it’s now the fine details. We don’t lose games we should probably win anymore; we are creating more opportunities and scoring more tries; and we are keeping the opposition out – but it’s the marginal differences that the top teams have over us at the minute that is the hardest thing to get right.”