Richard Cockerill could face fairytale return to Leicester if Edinburgh defeat Agen
If his team do the necessary today against European Challenge Cup Pool 3 basement boys Agen at BT Murrayfield there could, given other results, be a chance of a fairytale return to the Midlands club which has defined the former England hooker’s career.
Ten years as a player from 1992 to 2002 and a dozen as a coach, Leicester is the cornerstone of Cockerill’s career but he hasn’t been back since being given the boot just over two years ago.
“I’ve not. I left Welford Road on New Year’s day 2017 and I’ve not been back since,” he said after naming his team yesterday. “I know a lot of people there, I was there a long time. I still keep in touch with [current Tigers head coach] Geordan Murphy, he’s a good friend. There’s lots of people there I know well so my association with Leicester is still very much alive and there’s lots of good people there I have a lot of time for.”
Pool 5 leaders Leicester are away to second-placed Pau this afternoon but there are an array of away quarter-final destinations for Edinburgh, as long as they win today.
“We know what we need to do,” said Cockerill. “Agen are playing in a very tough league and they don’t lose their games by many, even in the French Top 14 recently, they pushed teams very hard, especially at home. Toulouse and Lyon they’re pushed very hard at home.
“I think four points will be enough to get us a quarter-final, and five will get us a slightly more favourable draw. Toulon, Bordeaux and Bristol will probably be the top three seeds, along with Leicester or Worcester/Castres in that fourth spot, so whatever we do we’re going to get a hard away game so we’ve just got to make sure we have a good performance.
“I expect us to perform, and I expect us to win. We’ve got to put ourselves under pressure to make sure we play properly.”
Cockerill has made nine changes from the starting team who lost at Pool 3 winners Bordeaux-Begles last Saturday. Damien Hoyland comes in at full-back, while centre George Taylor also starts. A revamped forward pack sees Pierre Schoeman, David Cherry and WP Nel selected in the front-row, with Scotland locks Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist both returning to action in the second-row.
Luke Crosbie and Nick Haining – both of whom were this week named in Scotland’s Six Nations squad – join Hamish Watson in the back-row.
“We’ve got a good side out, nine changes, seven in the forward pack and we’re still very strong so that shows what we’re trying to build,” said Cockerill. “But we have to prove it out on the field.”
Complacency seems to be Edinburgh’s main opponent today and Cockerill is sure his men can deal with that.
“We’ve got to learn to do it,” he said. “We’ve got some very experienced players and we need to be able to cope with the favourites’ tag and deliver a performance that gets you the win, it’s as simple as that. You’ve got to deal with that. It’s a different challenge to last week or to a Glasgow or a Scarlets or a Munster. When you’re expected to win, you need to play to the level you’re capable of and make sure you deliver on it.
On the squad selection, Cockerill reported: “Matt Scott is rested, he got a little bit of a bang last week and we’re just looking after him. And obviously he’s got to go into a Test camp and wants to compete for a spot.
“Blair [Kinghorn] is the same, he’s got a heavy workload ahead of him in the next eight, nine weeks I’d imagine.
“Stuart McInally has still got a sore rib from the Glasgow game, Magnus Bradbury is on Test rest having played five games and Jamie Ritchie’s hamstring is not quite right and I don’t want to risk him.
“He could probably play but with Test matches coming up I’m just not going to risk him. We’ve got some good strength in that back row so Jamie’s just being managed properly. Bill Mata is still recovering from quite a nasty cut on his face so he’s unavailable as well.”