EDINBURGH have at least five games of the season to go, and each one of those games is potentially a big one. On Friday they visit Connacht in the PRO14 as they look to consolidate their hold on third place in Conference B; eight days later it is the Challenge Cup quarter-final against Cardiff at Murrayfield; and then come three more home league games – against Ulster, Scarlets and Glasgow.
It is a welcome change from seasons past, when by this time of year they would have little or nothing to play for, and, while there is still time for things to go wrong, there is a growing sense with this Edinburgh team that they are simply not as prone to mishaps as they were; that they know how to be masters of their own destiny.
If they stay in third place in Conference B – and they are currently nine points clear of Ulster, who have a game in hand – Richard Cockerill’s team will be in those end-of-season play-offs as well as booking a place in next season’s Champions Cup. And even if they fall to fourth, they will then play their equivalents in Conference A to decide who gets the last place in European rugby’s premier competition.
Little wonder, then, that, as Ben Toolis explained yesterday, the squad has a growing sense of self-confidence. “We’ve just shown a bit of belief and it gives us a bit of confidence that we can do it, which we’ve probably been lacking in the last few seasons,” the Scotland lock explained. “And we’ve maybe gone into our shells a bit when we were probably expected to lose those games.
“We just ignore that and realise we’re a good team and go out and do what we do and it’s showing with the results, even if it’s winning by one point against Ulster or being close margins but we still get the wins, still get the four points. That builds confidence.
“The run-in to the end of the season is going to be extremely tough. Each point is going to be crucial, going into the back end of the season, for the PRo14 and going into the finals in Europe. We want to finish strong in both competitions. We’re not really favouring one competition. We just want to keep the momentum going. We’ve had a lot of good wins recently in a row, so we just want to keep that going – confidence is high, so hopefully we’ll continue that on Friday night. I’m sure we will. The boys have been training well, the boys have been playing well and we’ve also started to create a lot of good depth in the team, so I think we should be pretty confident going into this game and the back end of the season.”
Richard Cockerill will announce his team to play Connacht today [Thursday], and will have most of his Scotland international players available to him. “Stuart McInally and Hamish Watson won’t play, because it’s sensible to rest them,” the head coach said. “Everybody else is good to go.” Neil Cochrane and Cammy Fenton should continue to share the hooking duties in the absence of McInally, while the back row remains one of the strongest areas of the team, with John Hardie probably continuing at openside while Watson has a week off.
Darcy Graham and Glenn Bryce are about to join up with the Scotland sevens squad for the Commonwealth Games in Australia, but Cockerill was adamant that former members of that squad such as Mark Bennett, Dougie Fife and James Johnstone should stay with Edinburgh as the season nears its climax. “Edinburgh takes preference over the sevens,” the coach continued. “The sevens is a development tool for the 15s. Mark Bennett is first-choice 13 for us. We have some really important games and our best players will stay with the 15s.”
On Darcy Graham
Graham certainly has the potential to be one of the team’s most effective players, and in terms of natural ability is arguably one of the best already, but Cockerill believes at this stage of his development it is best for the winger to join John Dalziel’s squad for the Games. “The reality is this is his first season with the first team. He has had some good exposure. The way the union use the sevens as part of the development, maturing players by getting them to play in that different environment which is high profile and high pressure. The right thing to do is for Darcy to go and play sevens.
“We have good cover. He is a little bit down the pecking order at the moment. It is a big game. He has had some good exposure at 15s and done well at 7s. For his development it is the right thing for him to play sevens.”
While Allan Dell played and scored for Hawick last week and should be seen in Edinburgh colours again soon, and Ross Ford has returned to full training, there is still uncertainty about another front-row forward, Alasdair Dickinson, who has not played since breaking a foot last season and also undergoing shoulder surgery while rehabbing that injury. “He’s had some serious injuries, so we must make sure he’s dead right before he comes back into playing,” Cockerill said of the 34-year-old prop. “It’s hard to say when he’ll be back. He has to prove to himself that he is ready to come back and play and be confident.
“The union and the club are supportive and when he feels comfortable to come back he will. Maybe there will be another decision he needs to make further down the line, but we’re not there yet.
“He’s a very experienced player who has done a lot for Scottish rugby. It’s right we are patient with him so he can make the right choice, whether that is playing again or not playing again. He’s had a lot of serious injuries and he’s still a young man, so it has to be right for him.”