FOR a man so committed to winning, Richard Cockerill was notably upbeat after seeing Edinburgh lose 17-10 to Stade Francais on Saturday night.
The fact that his team had already won their Challenge Cup pool before the match at the Stade Jean-Bouin was one reason for that. A more important factor, however, was the attitude of the players.
Edinburgh could have lost very badly: that much became obvious when they conceded two tries in the first seven minutes. And if this had been the Edinburgh side of last season, they almost certainly would have lost very badly. Instead, they rallied well, becoming better the longer the game went on and, for a time in the second half, even threatening to pull off an improbable victory. While admitting that such a result would not have been a fair reflection of the hosts’ superiority over the piece, Cockerill was encouraged by yet another performance that demonstrated the improved character of his team.
“I thought we learned about ourselves,” the head coach said after learning that the draw for the knockout stages had given his team a quarter-final against Cardiff, to be played at Murrayfield on the weekend beginning March 30th. “We are better than we think we are, and if we apply ourselves and stay in the battle and play every minute like we mean it, then we’re good enough to keep pace with good sides like Stade.
“We need to learn from that. Give it 12 to 18 months and we’ll be expecting more from the guys because they know what it takes now.”
Cockerill has had barely six months so far in which to work with his players, and has clearly brought about a massive improvement in attitude as well as a marked improvement in results. You would never accuse him of being self-effacing, but by the same token he has never tried to take undue credit for what he has done, insisting there is a simple formula for making individuals and whole squads better at playing rugby.
“There’s no talent in effort, is there? There’s just a choice: you can choose to stay in the fight or you can choose to give up. I only want players that want to choose to stay in the fight. Whether you’re young or experienced, world class or just a good club player, there’s no monopoly on effort.
“All I want is for Murray McCallum or Lewie Carmichael or whoever, Gilchrist, Du Preez or any of those senior guys – maximum effort all the time. Let’s see where it gets us. If I keep driving that it will become second nature and there will come a point where I don’t have to mention it at half-time, or before the game.”
After a demanding period which took in the two 1872 Cup games as well as the double-header against Stade, Edinburgh have some time off now before they resume their PRO14 campaign with a match against Leinster at Myreside on February 9. The league will clearly be uppermost in Cockerill’s mind for the next couple of months, but the prospect of that cup quarter-final nonetheless holds considerable appeal. The coach might have been unsure when he took on the job as to how much strength of character lurked within his players, but he is beginning to find out, and he is increasingly enthused by the evidence.
“We’ll look forward to that,” he said of the Cardiff game. “It will be a big occasion, but as we’ve seen against Glasgow and Stade, when we have everyone in the right mental state we’re good enough to compete and win those games. Hopefully, we’ll have some injured guys back, which should make a difference. We’re looking forward to going as far as we can in this competition.
“If we win that we will have the pleasure of going to Pau or to Stade. If we have to come back to France and play in a semi-final then games like this one will be vital.”