The Edinburgh “collective” faces a French club packed with superstars for a second week running but the difference tonight is that the latest opposing group of “individuals” have their eye very much on the prize.
Six days after that historic win in Toulon, Richard Cockerill’s Heineken Champions Cup Pool 5 toppers welcome former Scotland boss Vern Cotter’s Montpellier, who know that victory would see them leapfrog the Scots, take the section and a prized home quarter-final in Europe’s premier club competition.
A French club led by a familiar New Zealander with nine South Africans in their starting line-up is the task at hand. Even in defeat, the 19 points (which could nudge up if the loss is narrow and/or high scoring) could be enough but Cockerill, whose team is unchanged from the heroics of Stade Mayol, is determined to get the win that takes all the mind-frazzling permutations off the table.
Such an outcome would take Glasgow through as well, giving Scotland two sides in the last eight for the first time, but the Montpellier line-up named by Cotter yesterday has braced Cockerill for a fearsome test.
“It’s a very strong team,” was the Englishman’s verdict. “Especially in that backline where 9 [Ruan Pienaar], 10 [Johan Goose] and 12 [Jan Serfontein] are all Springboks. There’s a Springbok at 15 [Frans Steyn], and Goosen is a very, very dangerous player.
“[Wing] Henry Immelman is another South African player of very good quality. So there’s a lot of quality in that team. If you look at the Du Plessis brothers [prop Jannie and returning hooker Bismarck], they are quality players, and [skipper and France No .8] Louis Picamoles has unbelievable quality. However, we feel that the sum of our parts is just as strong. Their individuals might be very strong but the weather’s going to be cold, and the sleet and the rain will be coming down. We’re just hoping to play our best game and get in the middle of them, make sure they don’t settle, and make it as uncomfortable as possible for them.”
Cockerill admitted it was not the toughest selection call of his career. “You reward the performance from last week. We’ve had a full bill of health and from the players that are available that’s pretty much our best 23,” he said.
Edinburgh lost 21-15 in the Pool 5 opener but the coach feels that his team, who are looking for a seventh straight win in all competitions that will maintain an unbeaten home record against a side who have lost 12 out of 13 away in Europe, have come a long way since that afternoon in France.
“Just the belief that we’re good enough to compete,” was Cockerill’s response when asked what he took from that game at the Altrad Stadium, which accrued what in hindsight could be a precious losing bonus point.
“It took us 20 minutes to get into that game down there. They got in front but we scored a great try [finished by captain Stuart McInally] and suddenly we had the belief that we could compete. I think we’re a better team than we were when we played them there, we’ve got more confidence and we are developing our game well.”
Cockerill has crossed swords with Cotter over the years during his time at Leicester when the Kiwi was at Clermont and the Englishman described the coach who enjoyed success with Scotland as “a good rugby man who knows the game very well”.
Cotter is without giant Fiji wing Nemani Nadolo (knee), former All Blacks stand-off Aaron Cruden (calf) and France wing Benjamin Fall but will still unleash a formidable team at his old stomping ground tonight.
He clearly has knowledge of many Edinburgh players and described this evening’s encounter as a “mini Test match”.
“We are facing half of the possible Scotland team. The Scots have a very structured game, know each other perfectly. They play with a lot of rhythm,” said Cotter, who registered two wins over Glasgow last season after making way for Gregor Townsend at Scotland. “They [Edinburgh] are walking on water. They are big favourites.”
Both Cotter and Cockerill accept that discipline would be key to determining tonight’s outcome, with the Edinburgh chief acknowledging that his men must continue in the same vein as the past three European games, in which they have only conceded six penalties in each.
“In the bigger games against the bigger, more physical teams, we’ve been trying to avoid giving them easy penalties to get into our own half so they can put their own game into action,” said Cockerill.
“We were disappointed against Toulon last week because we either turned the ball over or gave silly penalties away for them to get into our 22.
“It’ll be the same against Montpellier because they’ve got a very big pack and if you invite them into your half of the field easily they will cause you problems. So discipline is always important but I think we’re a disciplined team where we try to be as honest as we can and listen to the referee.
“We’re disciplined because we want to win; we don’t want to give anyone opportunities for free.”