FOR the second week running, Edinburgh underperformed on Friday night. And for the second week running, they won with a bonus point. Their performance against the Cheetahs was disappointing for large parts of the game, as it had been against Benetton a week earlier, but even that disappointment is a positive sign, according to Richard Cockerill.
The coach knows that his team are still some way off the level of play they will need to get the better of Montpellier or Toulon over the next two weeks of Heineken Champions Cup pool games, but he is convinced that they are making gradual improvements. And he is equally convinced that, not so long ago, results such as the 37-21 win over the Cheetahs or the 31-30 defeat of Benetton would have been seen as causes for celebration rather than indifference.
“It’s 10 points in two weeks,” Cockerill said. “It’s not brilliant, we can play better, but we’ve just got to keep collecting points. I don’t think we can criticise the players for their effort
“We’re making steps in the right direction. We’ve got a bonus-point win at home and we’re not happy; we’ve done that two weeks on the trot. That in itself is progress for us, because I think a couple of years ago, a bonus-point win, the boys would go on the piss for two days,” he joked.
Asked what would constitute further progress, Cockerill highlighted his team’s need to improve their game management. They only conceded three tries against the South Africans as opposed to the five they had allowed Benetton, but they became passive and unenergetic for a time in either half, only rousing themselves to secure a victory after the Cheetahs had overcome a 13-point deficit to briefly go into the lead.
“We’ve got to learn to be in front of teams and stay in front. We don’t seem to cope with it very well. It’s something I’ve not thought of particularly, because I’ve just assumed that if you get in front you keep playing how you’re playing and you go on and win the game, because that would make sense to me.
“But we seem to have a mental block around that. We seem more comfortable coming from behind than we do being in front and staying in front. So we’ve got to work on that, and maybe that’s part of our development as a team, and I’m going to have to have a good hard think around that.
“There’s some parts we can do better. I would much prefer us not to let teams back into the game. We’ve just got to keep developing now, and we’ve got to try and do that next week against a really good strong physical team.
“Now we’re thinking about well, how could we get better? Because we can play better than that, and we’ve got to keep striving to get that out of the team.”
At the launch of the Champions Cup in Dublin two weeks ago, Cockerill publicly admitted what is surely obvious to all but the most blinkered of Edinburgh fans: that his team are nowhere near good enough to be genuine contenders for the trophy. In fact, having been drawn in the same pool as Montpellier, Toulon and Newcastle, they will do very well even to be in contention for a runner’s-up spot.
But realistically, their first Champions Cup campaign in five seasons was never going to have such an exalted aim. Instead, it will be about learning what it takes to compete with the best clubs on the continent – and if they suffer a couple of heavy defeats along the way, they will simply have to put it down to experience.
“As a club we’re looking forward to it,” Cockerill continued. “Everybody is looking forward to the challenge of going to Montpellier and hosting Toulon. For the club, they’re big days at the office and we want to go and learn what it’s like to play at that level.
“For our development as a club, we need to be able to go from league games into two big European games then back to the league games and be consistent with what we do. That’s the one thing Edinburgh haven’t been down the years. We’ve never been particularly [consistent] in the league but have been able to have a cup run.
“If you’re sitting here thinking we can target getting out of that group, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed, aren’t you? There are two very big-spending teams and a top-four team from the Premiership who are bloody tough to beat as well.”
Montpellier, who are first up on Saturday, are now coached by former Scotland boss Vern Cotter, and are one of the most physically fearsome teams in the tournament. And according to Cockerill, if they fail to get on top of their opponents through flair and finesse, they are confident in their ability to steamroller their way to a win.
“Vern’s very astute. He knows the competition very well and he spends his money very well. They’re a very strong side. [Nemani] Nadolo has come back into the side, they’ve a very big pack of forwards and the strength in depth is impressive. They’re always going to be a difficult team to beat, and if they get it wrong, they’ll just run really hard and beat you up. That’s the reality of it.”
So should we credit Edinburgh with any chance at all? Winger Duhan van der Merwe, who moved to the capital from the French club at the start of last season, reckons one thing in the Scots’ favour is their superior work rate. If they can somehow hang in for an hour or so, he suggested, they may just have the gas required at the end.
“It felt like a holiday,” Van der Merwe said when asked to contrast life in the south of France with his current place of work. “The weather was so nice. Training was hard, but not as hard as it is here. The sun was always shining, and the French lifestyle was so chilled and laid back. It basically felt like it was one big holiday for a year, and then I got here and learnt what work actually is. France was very nice.
“I think Edinburgh will definitely be a lot fitter than Montpellier, because we’ve worked really hard. I think they’ll play a slower brand of rugby because they have some massive guys in their squad. They’ll probably use them more and play a slower brand of rugby where we would probably like to play a fast-tempo game because we’ve worked really hard on our skills in pre-season. We’ve got backs like Blair Kinghorn, and if you give him time and space he can cause real damage.”