THE bad news for Edinburgh fans on Saturday night was that, when their team needed to be at their most spirited against Glasgow, they fell flat. The good news is that Richard Cockerill is not only well aware of the shortcomings in his squad, but has been working for some time on rectifying them. At least in terms of the head coach’s planning, next season started some time ago.
Getting the better of a Warriors side who were themselves in need of a win was always going to be tough even if Edinburgh had been at their best. But there almost seemed to be an air of resignation about them from the start, and if anything the final score of 34-10 flattered them slightly.
Of course, the success or failure of a season is not determined by one result, and at Scotstoun on Saturday the effects of the loss to Ulster a fortnight earlier were very much in evidence. That defeat inflicted the real damage on Edinburgh’s play-off hopes, with the loss to Glasgow doing no more than consigning them to fifth place rather than fourth in Conference B.
After the highs of Cockerill’s first season in charge, when his team surprised everyone – perhaps themselves included – by reaching the play-offs, there were high hopes that they would repeat the feat this time round. That they failed to do so was not entirely their own fault: no-one could begrudge Benetton a first-ever place in the play-offs after an outstanding campaign, while Ulster under Dan McFarland have rediscovered the direction they lacked a year ago.
But, having said that, there are clearly weaknesses in the Edinburgh side that need to be sorted out, with the main defect according to Cockerill being a lack of resilience. After several games this season the coach insisted that Scottish players were not a protected species, and that they had to learn to be up for big games week after week. To say the least, it is a lesson that his own squad have not fully absorbed, as some superb performances that saw them reach the Champions Cup quarter-finals alternated with some below-par outings in the PRO14.
Losing at the Southern Kings at the end of January, three weeks after beating the same team 38-0, was a case in point, the defeat having followed two massive wins in Europe against Toulon and Montpellier. Surrendering a 17-0 lead at home to Cardiff the following month to lose 19-17 was arguably even worse.
Granted, it was not the same set of players who took the field in every game, so one issue is the depth of the squad available to Cockerill during the international window. He has already taken action on that front by signing the likes of South African hooker Mike Willemse, Australian back-row forward Nick Haining and Fijian stars Kalione Nasoko and Eroni Sau.
Work to be done
But the mental resilience of the players who are already there also has to be addressed. While the likes of Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn (badly missed in recent weeks through injury) can at times inspire their team-mates by conjuring something out of nothing, there is no-one in the Edinburgh squad with quite the panache which players such as Stuart Hogg and formerly Finn Russell have given Glasgow. Those two have exactly the sort of self-belief that Edinburgh need: whatever may go wrong in a match, either through their own mistakes or those of team-mates, they retain an unshakable confidence that they can start to put things right in the very next play.
There is sober, intelligent, experienced leadership at Edinburgh: players such as John Barclay and Stuart McInally guarantee that. But there is still a shortage of sheer bloody-minded belligerence – the very quality which, when correctly channelled, made Cockerill himself such a successful competitor.
Show me the money
Having said that, the former England international is convinced his squad are heading in the right direction, and believes that, in addition to judicious work in the transfer market, more experience in pressurised situations can help his present players become more consistent.
“We have the basis of a very good team,” he said on Saturday night. “We need to keep adding depth to that and keep players improving. It takes time or money; we haven’t got money, so we’ll take time.
“The way the team has performed this year, parts have been fantastic. We’ve had some very big highs, but our lows have probably been lower than last year. Last year during Europe we were resting guys, because we were in a different competition the Challenge Cup]: this year we were going full out, and maybe in hindsight the attrition has taken a bit more out of us than I thought. There are lessons for us all there.
“We’ve had lots of guys in the Test team, lots of injuries, and guys have had to step up. We’re just not used to being at the sharp end. We need to keep working on the team, coach the guys better, get guys better and keep building the depth of our squad. It’s as simple as that.
“We haven’t been good enough away from home. We’ve lost games we should have won. There were circumstances around some of those games, but no excuses. We’ve fallen short. This team has been around a long time and qualified by right for Europe once in 147 years and qualified for a play-off once in 147 years.
“We’ve got to keep working and battling away. We’ve got to be better next year. We’re not a good enough side yet, clearly. We’ve got to become a better team.”
One outstanding issue as the close season begins for Edinburgh is the knee injury which saw Mark Bennett stretchered off in the second half against Glasgow. Choosing his words carefully, Cockerill suggested the replacement back had been the victim of unnecessary, off-the-ball action.
“He got taken out at the side of a ruck and cleared past the breakdown. He’s been injured in an incident that could have been avoided.
“He’s had two reconstructions, one on each knee. You don’t want blokes injured when it’s not part of the game. We’ll have a look at it and I’m sure the authorities will have a look and see if there’s anything untoward. He got cleaned out and taken past the breakdown and got caught in a poor position with his knee.
“There might be something or nothing in it. With the injury issues he has had you don’t want that to happen at all.”
While there will be an anxious wait before the extent of Bennett’s injury will be known, there was better news about McInally, who was also carried off in the second half, and Darcy Graham, who was replaced in the first half by Bennett. “McInally twisted his ankle in the tackle – he’s not too bad,” Cockerill added. “Darcy got a bang on his hip. We’ve got nothing to do next weekend, so those boys can have a rest.”