BIG games normally call for big names, but when it comes to his team’s match against the Scarlets this afternoon, Richard Cockerill has decided that form is far more important than reputation. The head coach promised earlier this week that he would make changes in the wake of the defeat by Ulster, and he has been true to his word in advance of a game that could have a vital bearing on Edinburgh’s bid for a PRO14 play-off place.
Cockerill’s team, third in Conference B, are now just four points ahead of Ulster, who could only beat Ospreys 8-0 last night in Belfast. With both sides having two games to play, Edinburgh still need six points to ensure their place in the quarter-finals.
Mark Bennett drops down to the bench and Willem Nel, a substitute last week, misses out altogether. Duncan Weir and Phil Burleigh pay the price along with Bennett for what Cockerill saw as an underperforming midfield, while Bill No 8 Mata is out injured.
Jaco van der Walt returns at 10 after being an unused substitute seven days ago, James Johnstone and Chris Dean are the new centre pairing, and Cornell du Preez takes over from Mata. With Simon Berghan retaining his place at tighthead, Murray McCallum comes on to the bench in place of Nel.
“We’ve had players who have been given opportunities, players who have come back from Test duty,” Cockerill explained on Friday after announcing his team. “We have competition for places, and in the here and now you have to pick on form and not just reputation. The bigger picture for us and the club moving forward is that we have to create competition, and players have to understand that if they don’t perform for two, three or four weeks, then at some point if there are other players to pick they will drop out of the side, whether that is team to bench or out of the 23.
“We’ve got to start to step up to the plate. We have to pretty much win. It’s in our own hands at the moment, but if Ulster win tonight and we don’t win tomorrow then it is out of our hands.”
Johnstone has not featured in the team that much since Bennett returned from injury, but Cockerill explained that, like the other alterations he has made, this one was done on form. “Mark’s obviously commanded that position for the last 10 or 11 games. JJ started against Dragons, hasn’t played since, but I think on form he deserves the opportunity in front of Mark, so that’s why he’s in the team.
“Jaco’s played a lot of rugby and he sat on the bench last week. Duncan had his opportunity but didn’t take it. Same with Phil Burleigh – both of them defensively were poor and thus it’s cost them their places in the team.
“Jaco has defended very well and played very well. Chris Dean has been very solid and played well, and like I said James Johnstone deserves his opportunity on form, We had to make changes.
“[Nel] has been dropped. He’s not played well enough and Berghan has been very good and McCallum when he has played has been very good. WP, when he has played, has not played well enough and does not get into the side this week. His scrummaging is very good, but his contribution around the field both in attack and defence has been poor. He’s not doing enough to keep himself in the squad.”
As expected, Scarlets have rested some key players with a view to next week’s Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster – among them Scotland captain John Barclay, who will be an Edinburgh player next season – but Cockerill believes his own players cannot take victory for granted. “We’ve just got to play our best and go and win the game whatever team they pick,” he added. “There’s a lot of changes in their side, but it’s still a side that has got some quality in it. They’re not champions by being just 15 players.
“They’ve got a strong squad and they’ve demonstrated that, but clearly it’s not as strong as it could have been. They’re six points above us, they’ve got Dragons to play last, and you’d expect them to prioritise the semi-final, for obvious reasons.”
Edinburgh (v Scarlets at BT Murrayfield, Saturday 3,15pm): B Kinghorn; D Fife, J Johnstone, C Dean, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, S Hidalgo-Clyne; J Lay, S McInally, S Berghan, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, J Ritchie, C du Preez. Substitutes: N Cochrane, A Dell, M McCallum, L Carmichael, L Crosbie, N Fowles, D Weir, M Bennett.
Scarlets: R Jones; T Varndell, I Nicholas, S Hughes, R Conbeer; D Jones, A Davies; D Evans, R Elias, W Kruger, S Cummins, D Bulbring, L Rawlins, J Macleod, W Boyde. Substitutes: T Davies, P Price, S Gardiner, J Helps, S Evans, K Evans, C Baldwin, T Rogers.