Edinburgh have long yearned to be taken seriously as a force in the Guinness PRO14, to make up the vast ground lost to Glasgow Warriors as Scotland’s premier team and shunt themselves into play-offs and finals with feverish crowds and flashing lenses.
For the first time in what seems like an age, Edinburgh are expected to swat aside their ancient rivals in the successive Murrayfield derbies that end the regular PRO14 season. Richard Cockerill’s men are top of Conference B by two points. Protect that berth and a maiden home semi-final beckons. As little as a solitary point from the inter-city showdowns will book them a place in the last four.
Cockerill inherited a disparate and unreliable squad with little discernible culture and even less respect from its foes across the division. In three years, he has led Edinburgh to a first-ever PRO14 league play-off, a third-ever Champions Cup quarter-final and fostered greater links between the club, its history and its people.
Behind the scenes, there are reservations about some of Cockerill’s methods. His manner with players, choice of language and truculent nature have caused upset. But the results on his watch and the growth of the team have been undeniably brilliant. And so this week’s news that he in talks to extend terms when his current deal expires next summer was met with widespread glee by Edinburgh fans.
The club has needed stability and continuity having ploughed through four permanent and three interim coaches in the decade prior to Englishman’s appointment. The squad, too, has a settled and formidable look to it.
Edinburgh have kept hold of their biggest players this summer and of the front-liners, only Matt Scott and Simon Hickey left while John Barclay retired. Scott’s departure was hugely avoidable and disappointing given his immense form pre-lockdown, but there is ample depth in midfield. Allowing Hickey to move on coupled with the scuppered signing of Jono Lance, however, leaves Cockerill without a senior alternative to Jaco van der Walt at fly-half. Still, they are in very healthy shape.
In the coach’s early days, the style of play was not enthralling. The focus was on making use of a snarling pack, defending stoutly and following a simple but effective blueprint. That resilience remains. Edinburgh have the second-best defence in the league for tries conceded and have shipped less than half (21) of Glasgow’s 49 in the 13 games so far. The more stringent applications of breakdown laws should suit their jackals, the supreme Hamish Watson and Luke Crosbie. They also have one of Europe’s most destructive carriers in Viliame Mata.
With the kind of attacking weaponry that Edinburgh now wield – even without Darcy Graham a back-three of Duhan van der Merwe, Blair Kinghorn and Eroni Sau is up there with the most devastating in the PRO14 tournament – it would be nice to see them open up a bit more. The evidence suggests that is beginning to happen, but making use of their extra gears in the attack would mark another significant step on their journey in the Cockerill era.
Across the country, Glasgow’s lockdown has been starkly different and potentially transformative. Dave Rennie left for Australia and Danny Wilson took his place, overhauling the coaching staff with only defence specialist Kenny Murray left from the previous regime.
Wilson’s appointment was not universally popular, the perception that he had been shifted from Scotland forwards coach to the top job at Scotstoun out of convenience and low cost rather than his ability. The optics may not be stellar, but Wilson has serious pedigree – he is still revered at Cardiff Blues for the tremendous job he did there in developing young players, performing well in the league and winning the Challenge Cup amidst financial mayhem.
Rennie’s Glasgow were often too soft and too loose, capable of outrageous attacking wizardry but vulnerable to getting opened up without the ball. The weakness was curbed on their run to the final last season but resurfaced in their stuttering campaign to date. That figure of 49 tries conceded – virtually four per game – is ugly and unacceptable. It is also one greater than they lost throughout the entire 21 rounds of last term.
Wilson wants them to defend better – that much is clear – and hone a more effective game management strategy. In his press conferences since taking over, he has stressed the need for a better balance in Warriors’ play, preserving the flair but marrying it with steel and aggression. He points out too that many of those 49 tries have come from turnovers.
The coach is also not averse to throwing curveballs. It has been known for some time that Huw Jones would start Saturday’s game at full-back, but that remains a bold call given the centre has not played the position since moving to Scotland three years ago.
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Were it not for the coronavirus-enforced recruitment freeze across Scottish rugby, Wilson would have signed a recognised full-back by now, but his options for the foreseeable future are limited. Glenn Bryce is on the bench this weekend, the burgeoning Rufus McLean will be drip-fed in during the new season, and Tommy Seymour shifted across from the wing for much of the previous campaign.
Jones, who has struggled to nail down a starting berth at Warriors, could make the jersey his own, but that is unlikely to bolster his Scotland prospects with captain Stuart Hogg and Kinghorn the established men at 15.
Glasgow are without Leone Nakarawa, who is due to return from Fiji in the coming weeks following the birth of his first child, but the return of Richie Gray is an excellent fillip. His partnership with the outstanding Scott Cummings has massive potential.
They have a terrific front-row with Oli Kebble, newly anointed captain Fraser Brown and Zander Fagerson, and that battle with Rory Sutherland, Stuart McInally and WP Nel will be immense. They have Scotland’s two best scrum-halves, Ali Price and George Horne, as well as the swashbuckling Adam Hastings and a massive attacking arsenal outside him. There are captivating showdowns wherever you look.
The depth across the pro-teams will be tested like never before this autumn. Each squad could conceivably lose 15 players or more to international duty, and there has been scant chance to recruit while the pandemic decimates resources. It is an opportune time to be an academy player pushing for first-team minutes and we will see a swathe of youngsters given their shots as the big dogs depart.
Word from inside the two camps has been startlingly different these past few weeks. Glasgow players have spoken of their gradual progression, learning new systems and new calls, and quick, invigorating sessions under Wilson and his staff. Edinburgh’s talk of physical beastings and doing contact virtually every day since team training was authorised.
These games will be fascinating contests. Edinburgh are favourites, no question, but how will they handle that novel weight of expectation? Glasgow are a seriously dangerous opponent with nothing to lose, a bitter rival to knock off course and a new coach to impress. This is unfamiliar ground for them too, but for different reasons.
Edinburgh are exactly where they and Cockerill want to be – this is their chance to turn PRO14 promise into substance.
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