Edinburgh coach in bullish mood ahead of tough PRO14 opening
Edinburgh haven't embarked on a season with such an optimistic buzz for many a year but those who add a caveat of caution should not be dismissed as killjoys.
Last season’s thrilling revival under Richard Cockerill and the addition of some international-level recruits in the summer has rightly created an air of positivity but a tough opening block of fixtures will have to be negotiated before those predicting big things for the Capital team feel truly confident in their hunch.
After tonight’s opener against a star-studded Ospreys in Swansea, Edinburgh will face another away trip to Conference B play-off rivals Ulster, and then the visit of Connacht before travelling across the Irish Sea again to face champions Leinster.
After announcing a team which contains four competitive debutants, Cockerill was not shying away from the fact that his troops will be thrown into a cauldron at the Liberty Stadium as they seek to prove they are no flash in the pan, although he was happy to shift some of the heat on to the hosts.
“Ospreys have historically been very good against us, I don’t think we have won down there since 2011. So history is not looking good for us,” said the coach.
“It is a game they need to win, though, isn’t it? Edinburgh are coming to their place, the first game of the season. For them, who had a disappointing season last season, picking their best team is exactly what I would do if I were them. I have no problems that they have picked all their Test players because so have we.”
Those Ospreys stars include George North, Scott Williams, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate and skipper Justin Tipuric.
Cockerill has selected new recruits Henry Pyrgos and Simon Hickey at half-back, and will unleash the Scotland international pair of Matt Scott and Mark Bennett in the centre, with full-back Blair Kinghorn back after being rested during pre-season following his summer tour commitments.
Skipper Stuart McInally leads a pack which will see a Pro14 debut for flanker Luke Hamilton and a 50th club appearance for tighthead Simon Berghan. Back-rower Magnus Bradbury sits out with a calf strain, while prop WP Nel has been given another week to get fully up to speed after his knee operation in the summer.
“We will go down there and put our best game out on the field and with the mindset to play good rugby and be physically very good and to go there to win,” said Cockerill.
The coach said he was excited to see how the Scott-Bennett attacking fulcrum clicks as Edinburgh look to build on the solid forwards-based foundations of last season and threaten to be a team that can hurt the top sides with flair as well as dogged spirit.
“They both have a lot of international experience,” said Cockerill. “Matt Scott has been our best front-foot ball carrier in the midfield over pre-season. We have seen him do that here and previously and also with Gloucester. He has been very dangerous ball in hand.
“Mark Bennett only played half a season last year after having a year out [with a knee ligament injury]. He is starting to find his form again. He has an opportunity to put a marker down. Both are very good and essentially we must make sure both are very strong defensively as well.”
The two-conference system remains unchanged for a further season to achieve fixture fairness but few would argue that Edinburgh’s Conference B does look the tougher of the two.
“It is certainly a tough conference but we will have to see as the conference pans out,” said Cockerill. “The three big teams (Leinster, Scarlets, Ulster) plus Treviso who have improved out of sight, Dragons who have invested heavily on and off the field. It is a tough one. To be in the play-offs you have to be a very good team so it will be a challenge for us but one we will take head on and see where we go.”
Edinburgh: 15. Blair Kinghorn; 14. Dougie Fife, 13. Mark Bennett, 12. Matt Scott, 11. Duhan van der Merwe; 10. Simon Hickey, 9. Henry Pyrgos; 1. Pierre Schoeman, 2. Stuart McInally (c), 3. Simon Berghan, 4. Ben Toolis, 5. Grant Gilchrist, 6. Luke Hamilton, 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Bill Mata, Replacements: Ross Ford, Allan Dell, Murray McCallum, Fraser McKenzie, Jamie Ritchie, Sean Kennedy, Jaco van der Walt,James Johnstone.