Richard Cockerill said he was “very proud to be the Edinburgh coach” after watching his side secure a potentially crucial away win at Newcastle Falcons which kept them top of Pool 5 in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Second-half tries from James Johnstone and Duhan van der Merwe helped the Scots to a 21-8 victory at Kingston Park to boost their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages of Europe’s elite competition.
Montpellier’s victory over Toulon means it is shaping up to be a fascinating potential decider with former Scotland coach Vern Cotter’s side visiting Edinburgh in the final round of games on January 18.
A week before that Cockerill will take his side to Toulon, who he coached before joining Edinburgh, and yesterday’s result in the north-east of England keeps things very much in his players’ hands.
“It’s a great result for us,” said the coach, who was able to savour victory on what was his 48th birthday. “We had not won away from home in eight months so that is pleasing. We came here to win, we had a plan, we made some errors, but credit to the boys. They stuck to the task, and over 80 minutes were the better team.
“We are developing as a team on and off the field. I’m very proud to be the Edinburgh coach tonight, they did really well.”
Cockerill still expects the trip to the south of France next month to be a big test for Edinburgh, despite the fact the three-time European champions have now been detached at the bottom of Pool 5.
“I hope Toulon might give up on qualifying and concentrate on the [French Top 14] league but they are Toulon at the Stade de Mayol and I know them well,” said the Englishman.
“What a great experience it will be for our boys. They go there top of the group and trying to win. We are Edinburgh. Good things happen if you work hard and good things are happening to us just now.”
It was by no means a perfect performance from Edinburgh, who had to battle hard right to the end to subdue a spirited if limited Falcons outfit and, importantly, then deny them the consolation of a losing bonus point.
“We’ve got a good forward pack and we’ve just got to cut out errors,” added Cockerill. “I felt [8-6 down] at half-time with the whole group that we were just sort of waiting for the game to happen. But I think in the second half we took the game by the scruff of the neck and we deserved to win. It was just about not letting them get anything out of the game as well.
“It was good to see travelling fans, people in Edinburgh kit, fans chanting the team’s name, it’s new territory on and off the field for me. It’s a good night for Edinburgh Rugby.”
Cockerill, who will now prepare his squad for the upcoming 1872 Cup derby double header with Glasgow, said that the fact yesterday’s success had come on his birthday was well to the back of his mind.
“I had forgotten. I’m too old for that,” he said with a smile.
After an even opening period, the stalemate was broken in the 19th minute when a speculative high ball by Jaco van der Walt was claimed and Falcons scrum-half Sonatane Takulua hared up the left flank before exploiting the gaps in the Edinburgh defence to feed wing Sinoti Sinoti for the opening score.
Toby Flood missed the conversion but four minutes later Van der Walt was bang on target with a penalty from 35 metres out to cut the deficit.
Flood stretched the lead out to 8-3 with a straightforward penalty in the 28th minute but that was pegged back by Van der Walt five minutes later as Edinburgh began to exert some forward dominance.
Cockerill got the dynamic start to the second half he no doubt demanded during the interval as powerful wing Van der Merwe made his first major impact on the game as he chased his own kick and bundled Simon Hammersley into touch to set up the attacking platform. Henry Pyrgos pinged a tantalising chip which bounced under the home crossbar and Johnstone was there to gather and ground. Van der Walt added the extras and Edinburgh were in front for the first time.
Edinburgh were by far the better team by this stage and added another three points in the 61st minute when Van der Walt knocked over another penalty to take them beyond a converted score at 16-8 up.
Entering the final ten minutes you felt this was the critical moment of the match and when Falcons transgressed at the ruck just as they were looking to force their way back into the Edinburgh 22, a lineout at halfway allowed Pyrgos to launch another up and under which forced a knock on. There was no need for the scrum, though, as Edinburgh pounced on the advantage and swept the ball left for Van der Merwe to surge in for the clinching score to the delight of the travelling support.