FORWARDS are fond of telling us that games of rugby are won and lost up front, but Richard Cockerill thinks otherwise when it comes to Edinburgh’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Munster. Not that the former Leicester hooker reckons it will all be down to the backs, either. Instead, he is convinced that the battle in the air will be the determining factor.
There are a couple of entirely reasonable presumptions behind the home head coach’s analysis. First, neither pack will get a decisive advantage and the match at Murrayfield will therefore be a very tight affair. Second, both teams will play a very similar game – one designed to provoke mistakes in their opponents.
You would have to say from looking at how the two sets of forwards line up that Cockerill’s first point surely correct, and that the 26 men likely to be involved up front are likely to bludgeon each other to a standstill. As for his second point, he said earlier this week that Edinburgh would try to ‘out-Munster Munster’ – and, as he reiterated at his team-announcement press conference at lunch time, that means a lot of kicking from both sides.
That analysis in turn explains the back three he has chosen: Darcy Graham at full-back, Damien Hoyland and Duhan van der Merwe on the wings. In the absence of the injured Blair Kinghorn, Graham is the best full-back in Cockerill’s squad, and is particularly adept at fielding high balls and initiating counter-attacks. Van der Merwe’s physical power will be used to wear down the Munster defence, while Cockerill believes that Hoyland, too, is good under the high ball.
“We know what’s going to come from the aerial threat, and Damien is a very good player under the high ball – and Darcy the same. Darcy gives us a little bit more threat around our attacking game. It’s going to be small margins and we’re going to need a bit of a sharp edge. Simple as that, really.
“There will be no secret that they will kick the ball and we will kick the ball and the aerial battle will be key. The reality in big matches, Test matches, in Europe, whoever wins the kicking battle and kicks the ball best, sometimes most, wins the games. It will be tight margins. I don’t expect them to run it from their goal line and I’m sure they don’t expect us to do that either from ours.
“We’re not too dissimilar as teams in how we play and approach the game. So, it will be interesting to see how it pans out. It should be a good game of chess.”
Of course, actual games of chess are won in the head, and while there is no denying the ability of the Edinburgh squad, there is still a question mark over their mental preparedness for the big occasion. Cockerill is sure that they are more self-confident under pressure, citing some of their European pool-stage matches and their 1872 Cup outings as examples. But he knows they still have some way to go on that front, especially by comparison with a Munster squad who have been competing at or close to the highest level for far longer.
“I think we are getting a lot better at playing well on the big occasion,” the coach continued. “I think this season in the really big games we haven’t been found wanting, to be honest.
“Last year was a step forward for us – we went to Thomond [in the PRO14 play-offs] and it was a tight game, where we all felt happy with what we’d done in the season and came away having lost by four points. So you go ‘well, it’s one dodgy lineout’ or ‘it’s one bit of genius by Zebo’ and that’s why we’ve lost by four. But at some point you’ve got to tip those scales.
“Munster are used to finding a way of winning games. Historically they’ve done that, and even last year they found a way of getting past us when they weren’t at their best and they should have, could have, won in the semi-final against Leinster. They just have that little bit more of big-game experience than we do.
“If we get it right we’re a good enough team to beat Munster. If they get it right and we get it right and we’re both playing at the top of our game then it’ll be interesting to see where we sit.
“The thing that gives me pleasure around this season is in Europe in particular we’ve turned up in the big games, we’ve stayed in the battle and we’ve eked out results. It’s the same with Glasgow at Christmas – we win here and it’s because it’s at Murrayfield, but then we went to Scotstoun and we did a job seven days later. So we have the ability to do that and we just have to have the mental fortitude to make sure that we go into the game and meet Munster head on and not get lost in the occasion, in the crowd and the fact that it’s Munster and they’re good. All that stuff is nonsense. We just need to make sure that we do our bits and do them very, very well.
“We’ve just got to muscle up and make sure that we’re in the fight the whole time. It’s not alright to lose, it’s not alright to fall away at the end, it’s not alright to be content with a quarter-final. I’ve no idea where we’re going to get to but that’s sport, and isn’t it great. Forty thousand people or more will come here tomorrow and not know who’s going to win and isn’t that what it’s all about?”
- SCRUM-HALF Nathan Fowles will leave Edinburgh in the summer to join Ealing Trailfinders on a two-year contract. The 25-year-old has made 71 appearances for his present team since joining from Sale four years ago.