|Pro14: Glasgow Warriors v Edinburgh|
|Venue: Scotstoun Stadium Date: Saturday, 27 April Time: 19:35 BST|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on the BBC Sport Scotland website|
When Richard Cockerill says the consequences of defeat for his Edinburgh team against Glasgow Warriors on Saturday night will “burn a hole in the back of my head for months” then you’re not inclined to argue with him.
“Of all the people who hurt the most when we lose, I guarantee you the worst will be me,” he says.
The intensity of the man convinces you of the truth of his words, but a grim scenario looms large on the Edinburgh head coach’s horizon right now.
To say they are up against it in their quest to make the Pro14 play-offs on the one hand and to secure a place in next season’s Champions Cup on the other is an understatement. Edinburgh must win – and they have not been doing enough of that of late.
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‘We’re good enough to beat Glasgow’
When they went on a seven-week winning spree at the turn of the year, putting away Newcastle twice in Europe before battering Glasgow twice in the Pro14 and then returning to the Champions Cup to soften the cough of the super rich from Toulon and Montpellier, the idea that they would end their season in mortal danger of missing all of their key goals would have seemed laughable.
And yet here they are, heading for Scotstoun in need of victory against a side that has won seven games in a row in the Pro14.
“The pressure is as much on them as it is on us,” says Cockerill.
To a point. Glasgow need a victory to guarantee themselves a home semi-final, which they would be favourites to win. Edinburgh’s need is greater.
“They’re a good side, Glasgow,” says the Edinburgh boss, whose record against Dave Rennie’s team gives them a big chance on Saturday. Since Cockerill and Rennie started going to head-to-head in Scotland, Edinburgh have won four of the five meetings. Forward power was key.
“They’ve earned the right to be top of conference but we’re good enough to beat them,” Cockerill says. “They do seem to get frustrated when they play us. We’re the boring team and they’re the exciting team. The reality is that in two games this season we’ve taken eight points and they haven’t taken any. The only Pro14 game they’ve lost at Scotstoun this season was against us.
“They play a certain way, we play a certain way. Maybe we’re more set up to win one-off games than they are. Last year, when push came to shove in the one-off games, they dropped short. They like to play, they like to be on the front foot, they like everything on their own terms. When they play against sides that don’t give them that they struggle to find their rhythm. If they find their rhythm they’ll tear you apart.
“We’ve managed to frustrate them and there’s only so many times you can say, ‘well, we would have won but we just didn’t execute’. It’s what teams let you do or don’t let you do. They would love to beat us and send us into the Challenge Cup next year. That’s life. We’re still building and learning. It might be part of the process that we get our backsides smacked at the weekend. I hope not.”
‘We have to learn to win ugly if we have to’
Edinburgh’s plight has been largely self-inflicted. They were in command at half-time against Zebre away earlier in the season but they lost. They were 17-0 ahead against Cardiff Blues and got beaten 19-17. Against Southern Kings they were eight points clear with seven minutes to play and they got done again. Three wins there and they would have no need to sweat on Saturday.
Last season they lost five games in the league. This season they have already lost 10. They scored 68 tries last time but only 51 this time. They are 17 points behind their final total from a year ago.
Cockerill can play the numbers game as well, though. He can point out that before he arrived at Edinburgh the team was in such a dismal state that few of their players were of interest to Vern Cotter’s national team. In the 2017 Six Nations, Edinburgh contributed an average of two starters to the Test side. Overall, they averaged about six players in the 23.
Because of Cockerill’s work in galvanising senior players who looked tired and developing young players into international prospects, those numbers have shot up. During the most recent Six Nations, Edinburgh’s representation in the Scotland squad ranged between seven and 11 players.
There’s a price to pay for that. Rennie is also paying it at Glasgow, but Rennie inherited a squad that was in reasonable order. He walked into a healthy culture. Cockerill walked into a basket case. He knows he’s making steady progress, but he’s never made any secret of the fact that he’s still got a truckload of work to do to introduce a consistent winning mentality at Edinburgh.
“It’s difficult (losing players to Scotland) but you know it’s coming,” he says. “The better you do the worse it gets for you. (Winning games) is counter-productive in a way. The by-product of the team improving is that we have double the guys away with Scotland and we have to learn to be better in those international windows. We need to learn to play, and win, those games in Europe and against Glasgow and then turn up and play Zebre and Dragons and Kings and win again and win ugly if we have to.
“When you go to the Dragons you go with half a team and the Dragons smell blood. They’re missing four and we’re missing 11 or 12 plus injuries on top of that. If you don’t see it with a more holistic view you’d drive yourself bonkers. You have to put everything in context.
“To be fair to Glasgow they played Ospreys at home in the rain (in January) and it was something like 11-0 (it was 9-3). Ugly, but four points, thanks very much. We, for whatever reason, are not capable of doing that yet. Now, we should be, but the reality is that we didn’t have the mental fortitude to close out those games. Ultimately, that’s my responsibility and my fault and the players have to take responsibility as well. We have to learn that it’s not acceptable. It may have been previously but it’s not anymore.”
‘We’re competing, we’re nobody’s fool’
Saturday will be a thumping occasion, a night time game in front of a full house with more at stake than ever before.
It’s fair to say that this is the most significant derby in Edinburgh’s history. Expect the attrition to reflect it.
Cockerill has not given up hope, far from it. When he floats the idea of spoiling Glasgow’s party he does it with a smile.
“You get what you deserve,” he says. “We have to learn to be consistent and it takes more than two years. People can have their opinion all they like, but this team is far better than it was two years ago. We’re competing, we’ve got respect, we’re nobody’s fool.”
You can almost hear the thunder already.