Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill has paid tribute to club captain Fraser McKenzie’s role in galvanising the team this season but admitted his first impression of the lock forward was that he was one of the most dispensable members of the squad he inherited last summer.
The 30-year-old Fifer will make his 100th appearance this evening when he leads Edinburgh out at BT Murrayfield for their European Challenge Cup quarter-final against Cardiff Blues, which is not a scenario the Englishman envisaged when he first arrived in the Scottish capital last summer to take up the post.
“I met Fraser for the first time when I did one-on-ones with the whole squad and he looked like a retired footballer,” said the former England hooker. “He was in t-shirt and shorts and a really good suntan, and slightly overweight. He was just in pretty sh** nick, yeah.
“I told him ‘you’ve got to get yourself fit if you want to be part of it’. It’s as simple as that. He’s a good man, works hard and if you asked him he’d say exactly the same. I think I did say ‘how long have you got on your contract’ and he said two years and I was “ooooh”.
“But all you want is honesty. He’s a good honest man, works very hard and he’s bought into everything we’re doing along with 99 per cent of everyone else. And he’s played bloody well, there’s no denying he’s been one of our better players. Fair play to him.”
McKenzie took over the captaincy when young flanker Magnus Bradbury was stood down from the role after misdemeanours on a night out earlier in the season. The Scotland A cap has, over two spells at the club, carved a role as a quintessential squad man, although the captaincy has seen him raise his level this term.
“Just no nonsense,” said Cockerill when asked to assess his skipper’s qualities. “He’s not particularly polite around the airs and graces, it’s just ‘here’s what we need to do’, let’s go and do it. He doesn’t take much nonsense and he’s quite abrasive. Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it, and he says it very well.
“Fraz..., and I have said this to him, so he won’t be surprised to hear it, is not a world class player. He is a very good club player and leads very well by what he says and delivers what he says.
“He is a tough fellow who works hard. He is no-nonsense. He says it how it is and has played very well. I have been very pleased with what he has delivered even before I made him captain. He surprised me because when I first arrived I thought he might be one of the first blokes leaving.”
Cockerill brings back hooker Stuart McInally for this evening’s match following his start turn in the Six Nations but Scotland flanker Hamish Watson is unavailable due to a shoulder problem.
The quarter-final will see two of the form teams in the Guinness Pro14 – Edinburgh have won six from six and Cardiff five from five – go head to head.
A huge match in terms of qualification for the Pro14 play-offs looms with Ulster visiting BT Murrayfield next week but, for now, a European semi-final is at the forefront of Cockerill’s mind.
“They’re all important. If we lose next week we can recover because there are two more games, but if we lose to Cardiff we’re out,” said the coach.
“I have no expectation of where we’re going to end the season, we’re just going to go into every game and try and win. That’s how we’ve approached it and that’s how we should approach it because we’re not a good enough side to cruise through games at 80 per cent and know that there’s enough in the tank to win games because we’re not a good enough side yet.
“We’ve just got to keep on developing. We’re nine months into a project that needs to last a little bit longer than that. Nothing’s solved. We’re just starting and are only 60 per cent of where we can be – this is just a starting point.”
Edinburgh will play in front of their biggest home crowd of the season outside of the 1872 Cup game against Glasgow, with around 7,000 expected at the national stadium this evening and Cockerill admitted there has been an extra edge to this week’s preparations.
“They’ve been a bit jittery and there’s been a bit of niggle around the squad in training, which is good,” he said.
“It’s hard to beat the drum every week. With respect, when you go to Dragons or Connacht you can’t go ‘this is the biggest game of the season, we have to win’. It’s different because this week you can beat the drum a little more, although in fairness the players know – this side is used to playing in cup games, we can turn up for cup games can’t we?”
That refers to Edinburgh’s recent habit of performing far better in Europe than they have in the league as they look to move one game away from a final in Bilbao, repeating what they achieved in this competition three years ago.
“We’re fighting on two fronts and next week I’ll pick the best side to win in the league,” said Cockerill. “But we just need to get Cardiff out of the way first. It’s a big two weeks because the reality is that we could lose to Cardiff and then lose next week and then the momentum of the season changes very quickly.”