Edinburgh call on ‘rejects’ as they chase play-off spot

Edinburgh's Sam Hidalgo-Clyne will start at scrum-half against Ulster. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS/SRU
Edinburgh's Sam Hidalgo-Clyne will start at scrum-half against Ulster. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS/SRU
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Less than 24 hours after publicising a long list of players leaving the club at the end of this season, head coach Richard Cockerill whistled up three of them for Edinburgh Rugby’s biggest match since that 2012 Heineken Cup run. This evening’s clash with Ulster at Murrayfield has a place in the Pro14 play-offs and Champions Cup rugby at stake.

The middle of the team sheet has a handy look to it but internationals Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Duncan Weir and Phil Burleigh are all moving on this summer and the wisdom of that now looks question-able given their key role in this evening’s crucial encounter.

“You pick what is the best team for this week,” replied Cockerill when put on the spot. “We are balancing our squad out. Some of those are financial decisions and we have guys coming in.

“My focus is purely on what is best for tomorrow night. I will pick the best team that I think is right for tomorrow night. As simple as that. Just because guys are leaving is irrelevant. The only important thing is that we pick the best team to try and win, as simple as that.”

But no one is arguing with that assertion, the question is whether his nine, 10 and 12 should perhaps have been kept on given their importance. Is Cockerill, perhaps, having second thoughts?

“No, not at all,” the coach slapped the suggestion down. “All the recruitment has been done in a rational way. We have good players coming in at 10 and 12 and we make our choices because we think they are the right ones. I am sure in hindsight you will tell me this time next year whether they were good enough.”

Elsewhere in the team, a knock to Fraser McKenzie’s shoulder means that Ben Toolis starts alongside Grant Gilchrist while John Hardie’s back strain gives Jamie Richie a place in the run on XV.

It will be a test for Edinburgh since Ulster’s poor league form can, at least in part, be explained away as the knock-on effect of the trial of two high-profile players on charges of rape. They were found not guilty but remain out of the match-day squad.

But Ulster can still call upon former All Black Charles 
Piutau and Six Nations man of the series Jacob Stockdale in the back division and Rory Best and Ian Henderson amongst the forwards; world-class players all of them and Cockerill is rightly wary.

“Their off-field problems have been well documented,”
said the Edinburgh boss. “Sometimes that distress makes teams stronger and brings them together.

“When you look at their team they have a very good squad picked for tomorrow. If they perform they are more than capable of beating us but, as we showed in the away game against them [which Edinburgh won], if we get it right we will put ourselves into a position to win the game. They have to win to give them a fighting chance of making the play-offs. When you bring the quality of Best, Henderson, Stockdale and Piutau back into the side that weren’t available last time, it shows the quality they have.”

But Cockerill also knows that his side have the ability to determine their own destiny provided, of course, that they don’t copy England and implode after one bad day at the office. Until that reversal at the hands of the Cardiff Blues last Saturday, Edinburgh had won six matches on the bounce and one more victory tonight will ensure a successful debut season for their new English coach whatever else happens.

“We need to have a reaction to last week because, like I said, we didn’t play anywhere near where we are capable of,” said Cockerill. “The more of these games you play, the more experience you get and the more you learn to react and play well in them, simple as that. It’s a big game for us, it’s a big game for them, you imagine it will be a little bit edgy, a little bit nervy, but we’ve got to learn to cope with that.

“This team is nine months into improving what it’s trying to improve so I’m not expecting the finished article but we’ve earned the right to put ourselves in the position to play for play-offs so clearly we are good enough to hopefully take it.”