Richard Cockerill seemed as surprised as anyone to be namechecked by the Rugby Football Union this year as a possible candidate to succeed Eddie Jones as England’s head coach. He does not quite fit into the “super coach” category along with Warren Gatland or Steve Hansen and it is hard to imagine everyone at the RFU welcoming him with open arms but his is still a CV that warrants consideration.
All the more so if he guides Edinburgh past Munster on Saturday and into the Champions Cup semi-finals. It is a match in which Cockerill has been quick to bill his side as the underdogs, competing at this stage of the competition for the first time in seven years and only the third time in their history against Munster, whose illustrious European pedigree precedes them. But also one Cockerill firmly believes his side can win.
There will be more than 35,000 in attendance at Murrayfield, but as Cockerill says: “Everybody keeps telling me it’s going to be a great occasion, I don’t want it to be a great occasion I want it to be a great game and I want us to win.”
He has certainly built a team equipped to do so and perhaps the best way to gauge his success is that seven of the eight Scotland forwards who lined up against England at Twickenham were from Edinburgh – unimaginable before he took charge.
Add in the return of John Barclay, the stardust provided by the Fijian No 8 Bill Mata, and Cockerill has constructed a formidable pack in the Scottish capital. Indeed, it is there he believes the match will be won and lost.
“We’re going to go full blown into the battle and take them on,” he said. “We’re going to enjoy the contest and see if we’re good enough to do it. We’ll try and out-Munster Munster, as we’re two sides that play quite similar rugby. If we get it right we’ll beat them – we’ve got to front up in these big games. We’ll be well prepared, have a lot of belief in what we do and we’re coming here to win.
“I think the territory battle will be key. They keep the ball very well, with Connor Murray, and they chase very well with their wingers and win the ball back, they squeeze teams and they squeeze territory and force you into mistakes. We like to do that as well, we’ve got an international forward pack pretty much, and we’re good, we’re well-drilled, and I think the aerial battle of winning the territory and who can not blink first, who can make sure they can manage that well, as well as the set-piece battles, the trench warfare is going to be fierce I hope.”
Cockerill has always been a realist – “Are we good enough to win the competition? Probably not, but this is sport, anything can happen” – but to focus too much on his forward pack does Edinburgh a disservice.
He has spoken a lot this season about winning ugly but he has two very different but highly skilled wingers in Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham (who lines up at full-back on Saturday).
In Henry Pyrgos and Jaco van der Walt he has an accomplished set of half-backs and if his side play to their potential, this season’s European success story can continue.
“We’re learning how to play week in, week out, and we’re doing that by playing in [this competition],” he added. “I don’t think it’s a consolation for us to be in the quarter-finals, I want to win on Saturday, we’re coming here to win, we’re coming here to beat Munster.
“We’re a good team, we’ll be well prepared, and we’ll look forward to the challenge. We’ve got players who can give us a bit of brilliance, so have they. We’re quite similar teams. They’ve probably got a longer history of doing it better than we have, but I think if we get it right on the day, there’s no reason we can’t win.”