Edinburgh coach out of patience as star players take a backseat

Edinburgh's James Johnstone. Picture: SNS
Edinburgh's James Johnstone. Picture: SNS
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Richard Cockerill has always insisted that he would pick on form rather than reputation and the Englishman was true to his word when he issued the team sheet for this afternoon’s match against what is effectively the Scarlets’ reserve XV.

Mark Bennett and Duncan Weir drop out of the starting XV while WP Nel, the hero of Scotland’s World Cup campaign in 2015, can’t command a place in the matchday squad and watches this one from the Murrayfield stand, where he may bump into last week’s starting centre, Phil Burleigh.

Jaco van der Walt replaces Weir at stand-off with Chris Dean and James Johnstone filling the centre slots.

The latter had an outstanding start to the season but has been largely overlooked since Bennett returned to full fitness. Johnstone probably deserved more game time and now he gets his chance along with a few others, and 
Cockerill wasn’t pulling his punches when the coach explained the thinking behind the changes.

“Duncan [Weir] had his opportunity but didn’t take it. Same with Phil Burleigh; both of them defensively were poor [against Ulster last weekend] and thus it’s cost them their places in the team,” he said.

“Jaco [van der Walt] has defended very well and played very well. Chris Dean has been very solid and played well and, like I said, James Johnstone deserves his opportunity 
on form. We had to make changes.”

“Yeah, he’s been dropped,” was Cockerill’s response to a question about WP Nel who has not been the same since returning from a long-term neck injury.

“He has not played well enough and [Simon] Berghan has been every good and [Murray] McCallum when he has played has been very good. WP, when he has played, has not played well enough and does not get into the side this week.

“His scrummaging is very good but his contribution around the field both in attack and defence has been poor.

“He is not doing enough to keep himself in this squad,” added Cockerill.

Edinburgh need to win this match to ensure a place in the Pro14 play-offs and to get a taste of Champions Cup rugby next season although that very competition has come to their aid this afternoon. Scarlets have posted a team that is unrecognisable from the one that beat Glasgow last week because they are resting their frontline troops before next Saturday’s semi-final against Leinster.

Just two Scarlets will start both games, lock Steve Cummins and wing/centre Ioan Nicholas, although both of their starting half-backs were substitutes against Glasgow and scrum-half Aled Davies would be a shoo-in at almost any other club in the league. So the visitors are not without threats, as Cockerill acknowledged.

“There’s a lot of changes in their side but it’s still a side that has got some quality in it. They’re not champions by being just 15 players. They’ve got a strong squad and they’ve demonstrated that, but clearly it’s not as strong as it could have been.

“They’re six points above us, they’ve got Dragons to play last, and you’d expect them to prioritise the [European] semi-final, for obvious reasons.”

Elsewhere in the Edinburgh team Cornel du Preez comes in for the injured Bill Mata in the middle of the back row and there is an unfamiliar face on the bench with one-time Scotland loosehead Alan Dell hoping to play his first professional rugby of 2018 at some point this afternoon.

It is good to have the South Africa age grade international back in action but you have to hope he can make a bigger impact than his compatriot managed on the opposite side of the scrum.

After several weeks of truly impressive results, Edinburgh have hit a speed bump with the finish line in sight and Cockerill was asked if he had finally lost patience with several of his underperforming players?

“We have had players who have been given opportunities, players who have come back from Test duty,” he replied.

“We have competition for places and, in the here and now, you have to pick on form and not just reputation.

“The bigger picture for us and the club moving forward is that we have to create competition and players have to understand that if they don’t perform for two, three or four weeks then, at some point, if there are other players to pick, they will drop out of the side, whether that is to the bench or out of the [match day squad] 23.

“We have got to start to step up to the plate. We need to pretty much win. It is in our hands at the moment.”