Ross Ford, Scotland’s most-capped rugby player of all time, has earned a fitting send-off but Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill said tonight may not be the night as business takes precedent, and that the veteran hooker wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ford, who has played 110 times for Scotland and 197 for Edinburgh, starts on the bench in this evening’s crunch clash with Ulster at BT Murrayfield in what is pretty much a make-or-break in terms of their push for a return to the Guinness PRO14 play-offs ahead of the regular-season closer against Glasgow at Scotstoun.
In modern rugby, benches tend to be used, so you would imagine that the home crowd will get to shower Ford with acclaim after it was announced the Kelso man will be leaving Edinburgh after 11 years’ service and, most likely, hanging up his boots.
Cockerill lavished praise on Ford’s character and attitude yesterday but stressed he won’t be withdrawing his hooker and skipper Stuart McInally unless he feels it is the right thing to do in the context of a game Edinburgh, currently fourth in Conference B a point behind Benetton and three adrift of tonight’s opponents.
“If it’s the right thing to put Fordy on, then he’ll get on,” said Cockerill. “I won’t be putting him on to get his 198th appearance. If I need him on the field because that’s the right thing, he’ll be on.”
Cockerill has benched another veteran, back-rower John Barclay, who has started the last three games following a ten-month absence with a ruptured Achilles. He has “a few bumps and bruises” and has been replaced at blindside by Magnus Bradbury.
“Same with Barcs or any of the bench,” added the coach. “I don’t pre-empt changes. If I think we need to change because we need a different approach or different energy or guys are looking fatigued, then I’ll make the change. But I’ll only do that for the benefit of the team. I’m sure Fordy’s the same: he wants to be put on the field because his team needs him, not because he wants one last cheer from his home crowd.”
Cockerill said Ford had spent the week his probable retirement from a historic career was confirmed focused fully on the task at hand.
“He’s a good man, he works very hard at his game. You don’t do what he’s done in the game without being a very, very good professional and a good player and a good human being,” said the former England hooker.
“He’s cracked on about his business as normal, because that’s the sort of bloke he is. It’s not our last game. I’m hoping that we’ve got three or four or five more to go. I’d love him to be a double centurion, because it would be horrible for him to stop on 197 or 198 or 199, but I don’t get to decide that and nor does he.
“It’ll be how far we get in the comp, and also if he appears on the field he’ll be on the field purely out of performance.”
Second-placed Ulster, who are coached by former Glasgow and Scotland forwards coach Dan McFarland, were walloped at Scotstoun last weekend, with their setpiece reduced to disarray. They welcome back Test forward Iain Henderson to lead them, but Ireland captain and hooker Rory Best is not in the 23.
“Iain Henderson’s an outstanding player – I don’t know what his injury’s been but hopefully we can test that tomorrow,” said Cockerill. “The same goes for [centre] Stuart McCloskey, who took a very heavy bang last week ... We’ll always attack an opposition’s set-piece because we rate ourselves in that department.”
With Chris Dean and James Johnstone sidelined, Cockerill fields the experienced international pairing of Matt Scott and Mark Bennett, both of whom are working their way back from long-term injuries.
“Scott and Bennett on the face of it should be our first-choice centres,” said Cockerill. “So those two guys have got a big evening ahead of them and they need to be a little bit sharper than they were last week [in the win at Scarlets].”
Edinburgh team to face Ulster: 15: Darcy Graham; 14: Damien Hoyland; 13: Mark Bennett; 12: Matt Scott; 11: Duhan van der Merwe; 10: Jaco van der Walt; 9: Henry Pyrgos; 1: Pierre Schoeman; 2: Stuart McInally (c); 3: WP Nel; 4: Ben Toolis; 5: Grant Gilchrist; 6: Magnus Bradbury; 7: Hamish Watson; 8: Viliame Mata. Replacements: 16. Ross Ford; 17. Allan Dell; 18. Simon Berghan; 19. Callum Hunter-Hill; 20. John Barclay; 21. Charlie Shiel; 22. Simon Hickey; 23. George Taylor.