In the wake of the recent head-wrecking Edinburgh loss to Ulster, a Guinness PRO14 semi-final they led 12-0 and then 19-7 and had firmly in their grasp right up until the last quarter, Richard Cockerill went through his players like a bull trampling a squirrel. The midweek review was brutal and sore. When the heat came on in the last throes when Ulster emptied their bench of internationals and their go-to men grabbed the match by the scruff, Edinburgh’s wilted.
Grant Gilchrist, on his 150th appearance, conceded back-to-back ruck penalties. Monumental try-scoring opportunities, chances that if converted would have put the game beyond doubt, were squandered. Edinburgh lacked the guile and the gumption and the composure to halt the waves of determined Ulstermen sweeping inexorably forward.
This was a fourth knockout defeat on Cockerill’s watch and of the grim quartet, it undoubtedly stung the most. They were heavily fancied and well in control. Edinburgh were insipid in their Challenge Cup quarter-final loss to Cardiff Blues two years ago, and nobody really expected them to turn over Munster at Thomond Park in the league the same season.
They were at the genesis of their transformation in those days, making their play-off debut in the Englishman’s first season at the helm. Edinburgh should have put the same opposition away in the Champions Cup last-eight a year later but were smothered and outsmarted before a raucous Murrayfield. Ruthlessness and street smarts – or a lack of them – told.
It is not as if Edinburgh are incapable of winning big games – they would hardly be in these positions at all if that were true. They have repeatedly seen off Glasgow Warriors, delivered against the Irish provinces in the PRO14 and Toulon and Montpellier in Europe.
European rugby is BACK and we've got that #FridayFeeling ?
After eight long months #ChallengeCupRugby makes its return with tonight's mouth-watering curtain-raiser ?
— Challenge Cup (@ERChallengeCup) September 18, 2020
But in the one-off, white-hot business of knockout rugby, they haven’t been able to get over the line. That is a serious issue. It suggests some degree of mental fragility, or at the very least naivete, is at play. If there is any consolation, it is that Edinburgh have an imminent opportunity for some measure of redemption. Against Bordeaux in the Challenge Cup quarter-final this Saturday, they can unleash a degree of angst, right a few of the wrongs of that Ulster capitulation.
The hosts, of course, no longer have Semi Radradra, quite possibly the finest player in the world today, to call upon. There isn’t a team on earth that wouldn’t miss Radradra, but Christophe Urios has recruited cleverly and retained almost all of his prime talent.
He still has the brilliance of Mathieu Jalibert, the young fly-half vying with Romain Ntamack for the French No10 jersey, Santiago Cordero, who could sidestep you in a straitjacket, Yann Lesgourges, Seta Tamanivalu and Remi Lamerat in his backline. Cameron Woki is among the foremost back rows in France, while captain Jefferson Poirot, Alexandre Flanquart and Wallabies Kane Douglas and Scott Higginbotham are vastly experienced internationals.
Urios has signed Ben Lam from the Hurricanes to add to that blistering firepower. The colossal Ben Tameifuna arrived from Racing 92, Guido Petti from Super Rugby finalists the Jaguares, and Joseph Dweba from a barnstorming season with the Cheetahs. All in all, it remains a truly formidable squad.
“If I do not get them to attack, I’m the king of idiots,” Urios famously said of the conjurers he oversees. Saturday’s XV shows how seriously Bordeaux are taking the Challenge Cup, and how badly they long to end an unfulfilling campaign with silverware. Jalibert, Lam, Petti, Douglas, Cordero, and Poirot all start.
When the Top 14 was abandoned in June, Bordeaux led the pack. They put away Clermont and Racing 92 on the road, cuffed Stade Francais by nearly 50 points, beat Toulon twice and were, over the course of the campaign, the premier team in France.
They came back from 13-3 down to draw with Edinburgh at Murrayfield in the pool stage and gave Cockerill’s men a walloping at the Stade Chaban-Delmas. The ferocity of their forwards and panache of their backs was too much for Edinburgh to handle on that day. Few teams storm the Chaban-Delmas, in fact. Last season, Bordeaux won all 13 home matches in the Top 14 and Europe. In the previous league campaign, only Toulouse and Castres prevailed at their south-west stronghold.
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— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) September 18, 2020
Cockerill has made seven changes to the team that lost the semi-final. Some big names are missing, chiefly Duhan van der Merwe, the mighty winger who is at the heart of so much of Edinburgh’s good work. The South African tops the competition charts for defenders beaten and metres made despite only playing in four of the six pool games. His injury-enforced absence is a giant blow.
Mark Bennett, too, leaves a sizeable hole in midfield, and perhaps most pivotal of all is the unavailability of Henry Pyrgos and Nic Groom, Cockerill’s two senior scrum-halves. At 22, Charlie Shiel makes only his third start, while 23-year-old Dan Nutton will earn his second professional appearance if introduced from the bench. Shiel has a huge amount to like about his game but this will be different from anything he has experienced.
In some ways, Cockerill and Urios are kindred spirits, gnarled former hookers from the same era, vehemently unafraid to say what they think. The Frenchman refused to join the Top 14 coaches’ WhatsApp group during lockdown because, in his opinion, too many of them are “faux-culs”, loosely translated as fake-asses. Cockerill spoke of how Edinburgh “s**t the bed” against Ulster.
“If you were at the review on Wednesday, you would be like, ‘Right, we don’t want to be here again, we don’t want to be in this moment again where we’re getting shouted at and we’re hawking the same things that we’ve been through for the last four years’,” said Blair Kinghorn, Edinburgh’s full-back, last week.
“Everyone’s sick and tired of it. We’ve got to the point where… I just feel like we’ve turned a corner. We’ll see at training, but I feel like we know that in these big games it’s just different. Small things matter. Some things you can get away with – just say it was a normal league game, Ulster might not have chased that hard because they would have had a losing bonus point. We switched off maybe. Whereas in a big knockout game like that it’s all the little things that matter, and they add up.”
For Edinburgh on Saturday, another hard luck story, and another blistering review, will not do.
Bit of a scare before Bordeaux departure https://t.co/oZo3E4iv5m
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 18, 2020
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