SOMETIME towards the end of the last century, Ian Rankin, one of many coaches who have tried to bring sustained success to Edinburgh rugby, voiced his frustration with his team after a defeat in Europe. They had competed wholeheartedly, yet had somehow once again lost, ending up with nothing to show for their efforts but some patronising plaudits for how pluckily they had played. “Gallant losers means bugger all,” Rankin said, anxious to break a pernicious habit within Scottish sport: the tendency of some players to accept that their station in life was to fight gamely but lose.
Fast forward around 20 years to yesterday, when Richard Cockerill expressed very similar sentiments as he reflected on his team’s narrow defeat by Montpellier at the weekend. The former England international may have only been in charge of Edinburgh for a little over a year, but he seems to be very well aware of the chronic lack of self-belief that has debilitated Scottish sides down the decades.
Repeating his insistence from Saturday that Edinburgh could and probably should have won the Champions Cup match rather than losing 21-15, Cockerill reflected on an opening spell in which his team conceded three tries. After being absent from the competition for five years, Edinburgh’s tentative start to their opening pool game may have been understandable, but the coach is now desperate to ensure that they are aware of how good they can be in time for the meeting with Toulon on Saturday at BT Murrayfield.
“If it kills me, I’m going to get rid of this Scottish trait of ‘We’re always going to be second best and we’re going to be plucky losers’, because it does my head in,” he said. “I’m an arrogant Englishman and I expect to win; that’s just my nature, love it or not.
“Our lads have got to get that streak in us and we have to get it quickly. Now we know the level and know what it takes to play against big teams. We’ve played away against Montpellier, and they were good, but we should have won that game. We did enough to win.
“We were a bit shellshocked for 25 to 30 minutes by the physicality and what it takes to both attack and defend. You assume that defending is this thing that takes all the energy out of you – and it does when you’re playing against bigger men – but what is just as hard is running into people who are big too. That takes a lot of energy out of you. We found that.
“Once we got that second wind and scored that first try, we went ‘Actually, they’re not as good as we think they are’. I said that to the players this morning. It’s not that they’re not as good as we thought – Montpellier are very good – but we’re very good too.
“Before the game this group had not played at that level before. We have now. We know what it looks like. Even at half-time the biggest thing was to take us past that pain barrier of ‘this really hurts and it’s hard’, to ‘I don’t care and will go again’. I expect more from us and I think we got it.
“If we can do that last week, can we back it up? It’s going to be a big ask, but we’re going to go and try to back it up. We’re talking about playing against Montpellier and Toulon and expecting to have a performance that reflects what we’re trying to do and will put us in a position where we’re capable of winning these games.
“That is a big step for Edinburgh Rugby, but we have go to put pressure on ourselves to do that. We know what it looked like, what it feels like. We know Montpellier are a good team and can compete with them. Now we have to do that again.”
Turning attention to Toulon
Toulon, three times winners of the Champions Cup, have been badly out of sorts so far this season, and lost at home to Newcastle at the weekend. But Cockerill, who was the interim head coach there for a few months immediately before he came to Edinburgh, knows how desperate owner Mourad Boudjellal is for success, and therefore expects a big reaction.
“Oh, I would say so. Mourad pays his money and he wants to win. He is very clear about that. I have a lot of respect for what he has done and what Toulon is about but they’ve not played as they should have this year.
“You look at their squad. They still have some outstanding players across the whole team. I expect them to come here and try and put down a few markers. Europe is not finished for them. They have some ground to make up, haven’t they?
“They are the team with all the rock stars. We are the team that pride ourselves on the unity of our team and how we play and what we do as a collective. When you have as many high-class players as they have got, they’ve got some individual brilliance that can turn the game on its head. They will be very motivated and I’m sure they will be very good at the weekend. We just have to be better.
“They had a great start to the game and got in front early. They just switched off, didn’t they? They clearly have not played with particular confidence this season. What are they? Two from seven. For them to lose to Newcastle in home in Europe is pretty disastrous for them. I know Mourad well enough that that is not going to be welcomed.”