He memorably described his first impression of Fraser McKenzie as being that of “a retired footballer”, but Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill heaped praise on the veteran lock yesterday after naming him as his skipper for this evening’s match against Isuzu Southern Kings at BT Murrayfield.
The selection came on the same day the former club captain signed a new two-year contract and Cockerill said the 30-year-old remained an important man in the fabric of Edinburgh.
“He’s been great,” said the coach. “He’s worked very, very hard to stay at the club and keep his job. He’s been bloody good playing wise.
“He’s had a relatively serious knee injury which he’s just got over and he worked very hard to get back into things.”
McKenzie stepped in to take the captaincy early on in Cockerill’s first season after Magnus Bradbury was stripped of the role after transgressing on a night out.
“He’s a really, really good club man who works really hard, can play at the highest level and can do a good job,” Cockerill said about the former Dunfermline player.
“He leads the team very well, has a good edge about him and is looking forward to playing and pushing his case against Callum Hunter-Hill to get into the 23 for the European game.
“Fraz has worked really hard at his game. As I said previously, when I arrived I thought he wouldn’t last very long, but he’s become one of the mainstays of our squad, a good core member of our team and highly valued.”
As expected, Cockerill has made a string of changes from the side who retained the 1872 Cup at Scotstoun last week, with a number of Scotland stars given the week off, but a few big names are retained and charged with collecting more valuable Guinness Pro14 points before the Heineken Champions Cup resumes next weekend.
The likes of Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe, Jamie Ritchie and Viliame Mata all start, while there is a strong bench that includes Scotland’s most-capped player Ross Ford, last week’s man of the match Pierre Schoeman, Test lock Ben Toolis and stand-off Jaco van der Walt.
“It was half in the back of my mind about who might play and what combinations might come together,” Cockerill said of his selection.
“We’ve had four tough weeks, there’s some obligatory rest for the Test players, with then going into Europe and with them then going into the Six Nations tournament, so some are enforced and some are just given opportunities.
“I wouldn’t have picked Mata but Luke Hamilton’s injury curtailed that. Vili was going to be on the bench, but unfortunately Luke didn’t pass his HIA [head injury assessment] test for his concussion. We’re pretty short on back-rowers, thus Vili starts, but he’s had three days off this week so he’s fresh and ready to go and happy to play.
“Apart from that all good. Looking forward to seeing how we go.”
Cockerill accepted that he had a responsibility to ensure their is no costly dip in form following the highs of Europe and the festive double over Glasgow.
“It’s always down to me to make sure the team’s prepared to play,” said the coach. “We’ve got to test the depth of our squad and we have to trust the squad to make sure that we get through these games.
“I expect us to take the responsibility as a coaching team and as a playing team. These points are as important as the ones we’ve taken in the last two weeks. This is an important period for us.
“I’m always responsible for the team performance. If they’re not very good you can blame me.”
Cockerill said the South African side presented the danger of unpredictability.
“They’re a hard one to work out,” he said. “There’s been lots of changes in their team over the last four games, but they’ve got some real threat, haven’t they? They’ve got some real pace in that back line and when teams don’t treat them as they should and show them the respect they should they cause them problems.
“So we’re going to play how we play. We know they’re going to come and be physical and get stuck in, but so are we.”