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Cockerill and Rennie to collide

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Cockerill and Rennie set to collide in heavyweight dust-up and Scottish rugby is the winner

As Edinburgh took control of their crucial Champions Cup skirmish with Newcastle Falcons, jammed their foot on the throat of their hosts and eked out a precious victory, an eerie sound pealed out across Kingston Park. A noise not heard for many moons. Edinburgh supporters, chanting the name of their team, serenading the squad who are taking them on a riveting European journey and who sit proudly at the top of Pool 5.

“That was a first for me,” said Richard Cockerill, their head coach, after the game.

For an eternity, this lot have suffered, served rancour and despair with a dollop of false hope every now and then.
How many Edinburgh teams of recent years could go to Montpellier and give Vern Cotter’s galacticos a scare? How many could dismantle Toulon, even with the French giants in their current state of apathy, or topple a good, motivated Premiership side in their own back yard so convincingly?

Of course, they’re still light years from the finished article. Without their internationals, the struggling and now coach-less Dragons beat them in November. Their second-string got savaged by Munster, Lions and all. They still infuriate. They make errors, take wrong options, squander opportunities. They had enough visits to the Newcastle 22 and enough try-scoring chances to beat Falcons several times over, but beat them they did, and in the end by a comfortable margin.

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Supporting Edinburgh used to feel like being a one-legged man in a backside-kicking contest, but Cockerill is changing all that. The players are invested in and invigorated by what he is doing and his contempt for gallant losers. Losing with gallantry is, after all, still losing, and Edinburgh’s supporters were often lucky to get the gallant part. You can see the unity and the snarl now, the way the players work to dig each other out of holes.

That’s the sort of attitude supporters crave. Cockerill is giving them a team they and their city can be proud of. Scotland’s capital has a large but latent rugby fan-base – it won’t stay latent for much longer the way things are going.

The last time Edinburgh had a top-tier European adventure was seven seasons ago. Then, they drew a crowd of 38,000 to Murrayfield for a quarter-final against Toulouse – and they won. That was the most romantic of journeys and that day was a triumph for Scottish rugby, with 13 of the starting XV Scots. A glimpse, perhaps, of what might be possible should the upward trajectory continue, but a little warning too – Edinburgh finished that season 11th in the old Pro12 with less than half the points tally of their rivals, Glasgow Warriors. Box-office continental glory must be underpinned by bread-and-butter wins in the league.

If Edinburgh want to learn how to build a brand, though, they need only cast an envious eye along the M8, where Glasgow have created a distinct and attractive identity, a swashbuckling style and a fan-base that swells year on year.

Edinburgh Head Coach Richard Cockerill. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

We know all about their elan and their propensity to score coast-to-coast howitzer tries, but they’ve added more to their game this year. Too often and too easily they were beaten-up last season, particularly in Europe. The way they play means Glasgow turn over a lot of ball and sides were able to squeeze and mangle them physically when they lost possession.

Oli Kebble, their hulking South African prop, has been at the forefront of Warriors’ brawnier approach. For much of last year, he was a frustrated spectator, felled by long-term injury, and only now are we seeing the full extent of his scrummaging grunt and open-field rumbles.

With Kebble in the van, Glasgow too are motoring in Europe. Their opening-round loss to Saracens was ferociously contested, as brutal as anything you will see in the club game and almost Test-level in its intensity. The only try of the game should not have stood and the match finished 13-3.

Since that day, Warriors have won six of their seven games, their only defeat an agonising last-gasp loss at Munster. They’re still right in the hunt for the Champions Cup quarter-finals, four points behind pool leaders Sarries, and are seven clear at the top of Pro14 Conference A.

Stuart Hogg and Greig Laidlaw (Getty Images)

What they’ve also got is exceptional depth. Alex Dunbar, on his day, is one of the finest centres in Britain, but he can’t get a game just now because young Stafford McDowall is in such brilliant form. In the same position, when everyone’s fit, Dave Rennie can also choose from Huw Jones, Nick Grigg, Sam Johnson, Pete Horne and Paddy Kelly.

Where Glasgow’s resources will be tested now is at hooker, where Fraser Brown and George Turner are both injured. Grant Stewart, another typically mobile specimen, has proven himself more than capable of stepping up, Kev Bryce is a handy deputy and Scotland Under-20 captain Robbie Smith will probably get his chance in the coming weeks. There are big games beckoning.

It’s derby season and time for Scotland’s rivals to lock horns. These affairs used to be billed as faux Scotland trials but there’s so much more at stake now than inter-city bragging rights and the 1872 Cup, which was resurrected, the story goes, in 2007 after being found gathering dust in the cupboard of a Glasgow office.

For a start, the league points are precious – so precious. Edinburgh, especially, need to get going in the Pro14, for they sit seven points behind Ulster, who occupy the third and final play-off spot in Conference B. Edinburgh out-gunned Glasgow twice last season in knife-edge matches and what better way to ignite a stop-start league season than by scalping your rivals?

Then there are the individual battles we might see. Blair Kinghorn and Duhan van der Merwe versus Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour. Jamie Ritchie and Ryan Wilson scrapping at the breakdown. Big Bill Mata thundering into Adam Ashe. Stewart pitting himself against Edinburgh captain and Scotland lynchpin Stuart McInally.

The slick and shrewd Henry Pyrgos against the team who left him out for much of last season, and the men who usurped him, George Horne and Ali Price, all instinct and speed and devastating dynamism. Chris Dean and James Johnstone are two effective centres who have flown under the radar a little at Edinburgh and if they continue their partnership will be desperate to have a crack at their more illustrious opposite men.

And at the summit of it all, Cockerill and Rennie. The pair of them threw a couple of hand grenades at each other last season. Cockerill reckoned Glasgow were getting a bit twitchy at Edinburgh’s sudden surge. Rennie, deadpan to the end, was unimpressed by Cockerill’s eagerness to take one of Horne, Price or Pyrgos to the capital in the summer. These should be gripping heavyweight bouts between two very different men and two very different teams doing great things in Scottish rugby.

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Cockerill and Rennie set to collide in heavyweight dust-up and Scottish rugby is the winner