Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill has insisted he is unlikely to favour either the Pro14 or the Challenge Cup this season, in the clearest sign yet that he believes his squad has greater depth than ever before.
The Challenge Cup is often seen as the poor relation of the Champions Cup, and many teams rest key players during it. Edinburgh themselves did as much in last week’s opening fixture in Pool Three, but a largely inexperienced side claimed an impressive 31-10 win in Agen. Cockerill has now reverted to a far more battle-hardened 15 for tonight’s match at home to Bordeaux-Begles, and included eight internationals among the 13 changes he has made, with only winger Eroni Sau and lock Grant Gilchrist keeping their jerseys from last week.
“We’re trying to get a run going in both competitions,” Cockerill, below, said yesterday, naming a team which, from Blair Kinghorn at full-back to No 8 Bill Mata, is full of attacking menace. “I doubt I will prioritise one or the other. We will pick the right side, hopefully, to get the best out of the squad and win the games.
“This is obviously a very strong team I’ve picked, barring one or two who may come into the mix in the next couple of weeks. It bodes well for us. We just need to keep preparing as well as we can and try to keep performing as well as we can and keep winning. That’s key for us.
“Even though this is the second tier of Europe, there are some good sides in the competition. For us, our ambition would be to get to the knockout stages and take it from there. In both competitions in the past couple of years we have not managed to get past the quarter-finals.”
Going beyond that stage either in Europe or in the league would certainly be progress for Edinburgh under Cockerill: they reached the quarter-finals of both the Challenge Cup and the Pro14 in 2017-18, while last season they got to the last eight of the Champions Cup but failed to get into the league play-offs. It will be tough to qualify from this pool, however, as in addition to tonight’s opponents and Agen it also includes Wasps, who Edinburgh will play home and away before Christmas.
“Bordeaux and Wasps are two very good sides,” Cockerill continued. “We’ve got some work to do there. We have Munster in between and then Glasgow as well so this is a tough six weeks for us. We have to go into it and enjoy it.
“There are 13 changes this week so we have a fresh squad and we need them to do exactly what the guys did last week and turn up, perform well against a very good team. It is a big European night for us and they are a big European team. You can’t sit second in the French championship and not be a good side. They have made some changes but when you look down that team sheet of theirs there are some exceptionally good players.”
You could say the same of Cockerill’s selection, and it will be interesting to see how Mata fares on his first start of the season. The Fijian has made one appearance off the bench, but was then given a fortnight off to rest a niggling injury.
“Bill is a big-game player,” the coach added. “The way we use him I think he gets into the game more with us than he does with Fiji. I think he had a quiet World Cup, personally, because he’s not their main ball-carrier and that’s what Bill does very well for us.”