At the Guinness Pro14 launch in Dublin last year the old cliche about the “difficult second album” was put to Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, and so it has proved as the pro-team’s season ends prematurely.
A fifth-placed finish in Conference B following Saturday’s stuffing by Glasgow at Scotstoun may prompt the question ‘what’s the story?’ after a campaign that has contained plenty of glory. Following on from the no-nonsense former England hooker and Leicester coach’s new-broom first season which lifted Edinburgh out of a decade of seemingly unwakeable malaise, the past campaign has contained more and stronger hits but, ultimately, not achieved the chart position it perhaps deserves.
So it will be a bitter pill to swallow for Cockerill as a potential trip to Siberia in the second-tier Challenge Cup next season will replace flogging French giants Toulon at their Stade Mayol fortress.
“Victims of our own success” is something Cockerill has said a couple of times of late, referring to the improvement he has driven leading to more Edinburgh players in the Scotland squad and therefore unavailable during Test windows which have proved costly. Cockerill, one could reasonably claim, is a victim of the failures of others as the SRU have, not unreasonably, backed the winning horse over the past few years and a deeper, better resourced Glasgow squad have managed to cash in during those international periods and now sit atop Conference A with a home semi-final to look forward to in a few weeks’ time.
For Edinburgh it is unwanted holiday time 12 months on from when they narrowly lost away to Munster in the Pro14 quarter-finals but, much more than the inability in the end to reach that stage again, the failure to get back into the elite Heineken Champions Cup next season will be what gnaws away at Cockerill over the summer.
That is the stage where Edinburgh shone this past season, winning five out of six of their pool games and coming so close to avenging Munster in what was a thrilling last-eight clash at BT Murrayfield played in front of more than 36,000 at the end of last month.
But swallow it they must, rebuild and look to deliver on the undoubted promise Cockerill has stirred at the club. At full strength and full tilt there is an argument to be made that Edinburgh have one of the best packs in Europe, but they foundered at the end of a long voyage with that costly home defeat by Ulster a couple of weeks ago and then at Scotstoun.
Fiji Sevens duo Kalione Nasoko and Eroni Sau, former South Africa Under-20 hooker Mike Willemse and Bristol back-row Nick Haining have all been signed up. With Sean Kennedy and Nathan Fowles released, a scrum-half to back up Henry Pyrgos and Charlie Shiel will be high on Cockerill’s shopping list.
As for Glasgow, the season, which for them comes with the welcome added words ‘thus far’, has had its deflating moments but, thanks to those strong showings during November and the Six Nations, and a highly impressive Pro14 run in, still contains the prospect of a glory day for Scottish rugby in the league final at Celtic Park on May 25.
Back-to-back defeats by Edinburgh in December and a series of schoolings from English giants Saracens in Europe have been painful blows but Dave Rennie’s men are still heading into the penultimate round.
The Kiwi has signed a one-year extension and will be focusing on how to keep his side ticking over in the next few weeks ahead of a home semi- final against Ulster or Connacht on May 17.