A PLACE in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup is in sight for Edinburgh. Whether they get there or die trying is in their own hands, and with Richard Cockerill at the helm you can be sure they will not fail for lack of effort.
The issue could be decided today, with Edinburgh going through to the last eight as Pool Five winners if they beat Toulon and Newcastle defeat Montpellier – or, in most circumstances, if they win and the other match ends in a draw. More plausibly, the outcome will only be determined next Friday, when Cockerill’s team play their final pool match at home to Montpellier. Either way, however, even if they lose today, any kind of victory next week will be enough to take Edinburgh into the knockout stages for just the third time.
As ever, the head coach sees his team as underdogs this evening against the former European champions. But, after winning their last five games in all competitions, and having already beaten Toulon at Murrayfield, the squad are in confident mood as they prepare to take on the three-time former champions.
“We don’t fear anybody,” Cockerill said yesterday after flying out to France. “Wherever we go we’re going to give it our best shot. When we played in Montpellier that game showed that we can compete against these teams. From Newcastle and Glasgow we know we can play away from home and win.
“We’ll still be the underdogs, because on paper they should win at the Stade Mayol. But we’re going to come here and give it everything we’ve got. We’re in a great position to qualify: we want to try and do that or at least get three-quarters of the way there.
“So we’re not coming here with fear. We’re coming here with excitement and with respect for the opposition, but we’re not turning up expecting to lose: we’re turning up expecting to be equals, and we’re going to go full out to get a result.”
Fighting fire with fire
Edinburgh certainly did that in impressive fashion against Toulon at Murrayfield, beating them 40-14 back in October. The French side’s line-up is stronger than it was three months ago, but gone are the days when a Scottish team would feel inferior to an opposing side with a few internationals in it. Cockerill has been able to bring back seven Test players for this game after resting them from last week’s comfortable league win against the Southern Kings, and no matter how impressive the Toulon team may look on paper, he is sure that, particularly up front, his own team can match them for quality.
“They’ll always be a different beast at home, as all French teams,” he continued. “They’ve picked a slightly different team again this week, with a few young players on the bench and in the back line – we’ll have to do some homework on the full-back, because I’d never heard of him before.
“But there’s real quality around. Rhys Webb, Anthony Belleau, Savea, Trinh-Duc, Bastareaud, Pietersen – they’re fantastic players, world-class players. Guirado, Kruger, Taofifenua, Facundo Isa, world-class internationals. There’s some real quality there, they’re at home, and we’re going to need to be very, very good to win tomorrow.
“[Having said that], for me, you look at that forward pack and look at our pack and we’re man for man as good as they are. Rambo [Stuart McInally] is the equal of Guirado and that will be a hell of a battle. Facundo Isa against Watson is a great battle too, Vili Mata has been outstanding for us, and Jamie Ritchie has been growing into his international role very very well.
“That front five, we like to think we’re pretty tough and resilient and will go towards anybody. We’re looking forward to the challenge. I’m not sure anyone can go to Toulon and savour it and I love to be an underdog so let’s not change it.”
Old pals act
Having been part of the coaching team at Toulon in 2017, immediately before joining Edinburgh, Cockerill acknowledged that his familiarity with today’s opponents could be of some use to his current team. Above all however, he is convinced that a favourable outcome will depend upon his players putting in the sort of performance that saw them beat the Warriors and Newcastle home and away last month.
“I have a lot of friends still here, I have a lot of good memories here, it’s a great place to come and play rugby. As I sit in the hotel reception the sun is shining, so it makes a change. They’re historically a great team and we’ve got a big challenge ahead of us tomorrow. So we’re going to look forward to it.”
“I think it helps a little bit that I know the psyche of the team and what’s going to come tomorrow from their end and what we need to do from our end. But ultimately it’s a game of rugby. We have to make sure we get all our parts right, get all the basics of our game right, and give ourselves an opportunity to get a good foothold in the game. It gives us a five per cent advantage on what we might have had, but I don’t think it’ll have a huge bearing.”
Edinburgh (v Toulon at the Stade Mayol, Saturday 5.30pm British time, live on BT Sport): Blair Kinghorn; Darcy Graham, Chris Dean, James Johnstone, Duhan van der Merwe; Jaco van der Walt, Henry Pyrgos; Pierre Schoeman, Stuart McInally, Willem Nel, Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Bill Mata. Substitutes: David Cherry, Allan Dell, Simon Berghan, Fraser McKenzie, Luke Crosbie, Nathan Fowles, Simon Hickey, Juan Pablo Socino.
Toulon: Mathieu Smaili; JP Pietersen, Mathieu Bastareaud, Francois Trinh-Duc, Julian Savea; Anthony Belleau, Rhys Webb; Jean Baptiste Gros, Guilhem Guirado, Emerick Setiano, Juandré Kruger, Romain Taofifenua, Stephane Onambele Mbarga, Facundo Isa, Raphael Lakafia. Substitutes: Anthony Etrillard, Xavier Chiocci, Marcel van Der Merwe, Jean Monribot, Louis Carbonel, Antoine Zeghdar, Yoann Cottin, Mamuka Gorgodze.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).