Richard Cockerill relishes return of Ben Toolis to face Dragons

With the Six Nations in a state of suspended animation, the Guinness Pro14 kicks back into life for the following three weekends. Despite numerous injuries and international call- ups, Edinburgh field a strong squad for tonight’s match at BT Murrayfield against the Dragons, who are still looking for their first league win on the road this season.

Ben Toolis is one of a number of players released by Scotland who will strengthen Edinburghs squad to take on the Dragons. Picture: SNS/SRU
Ben Toolis is one of a number of players released by Scotland who will strengthen Edinburghs squad to take on the Dragons. Picture: SNS/SRU

Richard Cockerill can strengthen with several players released from the Scotland squad, including Ben Toolis, and also welcomes the return of flanker Magnus Bradbury, who has been sidelined for several months after injuring himself against Toulon in October.

“Obviously, having Toolis back from the national team is a big boost for us,” said the Edinburgh coach, “and Bradbury coming back to fitness with (Luke) Crosbie and (Viliame) Mata is a really good back row. ‘Fras’ McKenzie, Ceccarelli and Schoeman…it’s a really good forward pack.

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“There is some real impact off the bench as well. I am happy with what we’ve picked and, apart from (Blair) Kinghorn, it is pretty much our first-choice back line.

“If Maggie has a strong game at the weekend, he will give himself an opportunity to go to Paris at the weekend, for sure, because obviously there are some injury issues and combinations that the national team have to deal with and Maggie would have been a certain starter, if he had stayed fit, through the autumn and the Six Nations.

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“I think if Maggie has some good time under his belt and looks sharp, which I think he will – he’s trained really, really well – I think there is every chance that Gregor (Townsend) may come calling for him.”

Bradbury, pictured right, is part of a strong back-row trio, including Crosbie and Mata, who will look to impose themselves upon the weakest of the Welsh regions.

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However, quite what the big Aussie Toolis makes of his current situation is anyone’s guess? The international lock started against Italy, only to be dropped to the bench in favour of Jonny Gray against Ireland where Scotland coach Gregor Townsend left him kicking his heels throughout the 80 minutes; a bizarre decision in a Test that took a huge toll on the physical wellbeing of all the forwards involved.

It was a slap in the face for Toolis that Townsend opted not to utilise him, but his Edinburgh coach had nothing but praise for his shaggy-haired lock. “‘Probably last year it would have been tough for Ben but he’s a bit more experienced now in coming and going between club and country,” replied Cockerill when asked if being dropped had dented the player’s confidence?

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“He’s a good club man, he wants to come and contribute. It was obviously a little bit frustrating for him not to be involved last weekend as much as he’d have liked to be. So he’s come back. He’ll run the line-out for us against the Dragons and he’s a world-class player. It’s good that we have guys who are prepared to come back in on Monday to get stuck into training and play for their clubs.

“Hopefully, he’ll go back into the Scotland squad ready to play and be involved in Paris.”

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They surely can’t both be right? If Toolis is world class, then Townsend should have used him against Ireland. If he isn’t up to the task, then someone else should get the spot in Paris.

Of course, your world-class player is my journeyman (and vice versa) but, when Cockerill was asked to point to other world-class players in his squad, he offered: WP Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Stuart McInally and Hamish Watson “on his day” none of which you can really argue with.

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Regardless of who takes the field tonight, a result is all important for Edinburgh who are scrambling for league points after that shock defeat by the Southern Kings. Edinburgh sit third in conference B, one point behind Benetton, one point ahead of the Scarlets, so they need to fill their boots tonight against one of the softer touches in the Pro-14.

“‘We had an opportunity at (Southern) Kings to give ourselves a bit of breathing space, which we didn’t take. So these next few games are pivotal for all the sides who are playing, especially Cardiff and Benetton.

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‘Benetton have got a reasonably tough run towards the end of the season, but so have we. So we need to start picking up points because, if we lose a couple of games and the teams around us pick up some wins, we could find ourselves out of the play-off situation and our qualification for Europe. We’ll take these next three games as they come, but they will be very important to our season. There’s no doubt that defeats at Zebre, Dragons and Kings may well cost us dearly when we come to the shake-up.

“They (the Dragons) have improved since they’ve made changes (to their coaching setup). Ceri Jones is doing a very good job.

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“They’ve got some guys away with Wales. But they’ll be pretty motivated for the game.

“I keep reading stuff about how they’re trying to break their away-day hoodoo, so they seem to be pretty confident in what they’re doing.

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“It’ll be a good test for us.”