Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill has backed stand-off Jaco van der Walt to provide the control needed to kickstart their Heineken Champions Cup campaign when they face three-time champions Toulon at BT Murrayfield this afternoon.
The 24-year-old South African is the only change to the side that lost 21-15 at Montpellier, coming in for summer Kiwi recruit Simon Hickey.
“Jaco is a good player and I wanted to give him the opportunity to play in one of these big games,” said Cockerill.
Hickey has had some decent performances, particularly with the boot, since his arrival from Bordeaux but Cockerill has opted for a different approach in today’s must-win encounter against the side he coached at the back end of the 2016-17 seaon.
“Jaco was good off the bench last week [against Montpellier]. He is the best choice for this weekend. Simon has played well, Jaco has played well when he has played.
“It is a pretty tight call but Jaco is the right man for this weekend. He is quite aggressive and physical without the ball which will be beneficial for us and, later in the game, if Simon gets his opportunity, his rugby knowledge and way of getting around the field will help us.
“They are both good players. It is a good position for a coach to be in with two guys vying for a vital position.”
Toulon suffered a shock loss at home to Newcastle Falcons in the Pool 5 opener last weekend are currently languishing 12th in the French Top 14, an astonishing slump for one of the richest powerhouses of recent European rugby.
It is a situation which Cockerill expects to provoke a response and Toulon are bolstered by the return of skipper Mathieu Bastareaud after the French international wrecking ball’s most recent suspension.
“He is a big player for them, the captain of their side. He has got a bigger skill set than people give him credit for so, having worked with him, he is clearly very physical and a very good ball carrier,” warned Cockerill.
“He has a lot more of a rounded game that people give him credit for.”
Former England hooker Cockerill is, you would imagine with a slight lick of the lips, expecting a ferocious battle up front today, which Edinburgh must match if they are going to exploit some of the obvious Toulon fragility.
“We have to control the ball in that first 25-30 minutes,” said the coach. “If you look at that forward pack they have picked it is enormous. They have four locks in the back five which shows intent around the lineout.
“It is one hell of a physical team. As physical as you could put out probably.
“We have to be very good in that first 20 minutes when we are fresh. We have to control the game and play like we did last week, with the same level of intent. We are going out there to try and win the game.”
Cockerill spoke earlier this week about how he wanted his players to be more of an “arrogant Englishman” like him and he is confident that the side he puts out this afternoon will have a good attitude towards the task at hand.
“I think they have to be what they are,” he said. “I just want them to believe in their talent.
“Away from the field they can be good human beings, I’ve got no problem with that, but when we get on the field I want us to believe in our ability and I want us to really show it because we are playing against a world-class club team and, as you see, there are players we couldn’t dream of being able to afford in that side.
“But when we get it right we are as good as them – and, like I say, the collective of our team, and our spirit, and our want to play together, has got to be the thing that holds us together to compete and beat sides like Toulon.”
Cockerill admitted that his time in the south of France, following his sacking by Leicester and before he took up the Edinburgh reins, did give him some insight heading into what is likely to be the defining game of the season.
“I know the guys well, their strengths and weaknesses, the ones that were there [when I was],” said Cockerill. “It gives me a little bit more of an inside track. Jaundre Kruger is a very good lineout forward. Romain Taofifenua is a giant of a man, 140kg plus, and he’s very good with it. Swan Rebbadj, the No 6, is a young kid who has come through the academy. I know them reasonably well and I think that helped a little bit.
“We’ve got to cope with what’s coming physically tomorrow. That’s going to be very difficult. And then you put in the individual brilliance from 11 to 14, it’s a hell of a task ahead of us but one will look forward to.”