Richard Cockerill was hoping to talk about the Edinburgh team he had selected to play the Southern Kings this evening in Port Elizabeth but his inquisitors had other ideas. Flanker John Hardie was handed a three-month ban on Wednesday for the alleged use of cocaine and Cockerill was immediately pressed on that painful subject.
“It’s the end of the matter,” said the coach. “It’s been dealt with and John will rejoin the squad in January. We’ll get him back to fitness and he’ll come back into the squad as selection dictates. He’s made a mistake and he’s been punished and, once he’s available to come back into the squad and train, he will.
“It’s been dealt with properly, it’s done, and I’m here to coach rugby and I’m hoping I don’t have to deal with too many of these things, but sometimes these things happen. So no, I’m pleased it’s been dealt with and we can get on with playing rugby again, and look to looking after John, getting him back right.
“There’s two parts to this. There’s the rugby part but also there’s the personal side for John and helping him through some difficult times. And then we get on with it. Everybody has these things in life sometimes that need to be dealt with. So yeah, I’ll just be happy to get him back in and getting on with what we’re here to do.”
They could have used the hard nut Kiwi flanker in Bloemfontein last weekend when the Cheetahs outscored Edinburgh by five tries to one in a game that wasn’t close. Still, as Cockerill pointed out, his squad had been stripped of almost an entire pack of forwards who were on Scotland duty. Three of the national squad, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist and Cornel du Preez are dragooned straight back into the starting XV for this evening’s fixture which is the second and final part of Edinburgh’s South African mini-tour. Ben Toolis starts on the bench alongside youngster Luke Crosbie, with Magnus Bradbury dropping out of the matchday squad with his coach citing Crosbie’s ability to cover both seven and eight as the reason.
The news from the backline is a little less encouraging with both of Edinburgh’s front line stand-offs, Jason Tovey and Duncan Weir, injured and unavailable.
Cockerill had options. Phil Burleigh has played there as has Blair Kinghorn, albeit with mixed results. Eventually he handed a first start to recent signing Jaco van der Walt who only made his Edinburgh debut last weekend, coming off the bench against the Cheetahs. Along with Du Preez and Duhan van der Merwe, he is one of three South African-born players in the Edinburgh XV.
“Jaco has been thrown right into the mix,” said Cockerill about Edinburgh’s new ten, a probable ‘project player’ for Scotland. “He’s very lively with ball in hand, very good at the line, he’s just getting used to all the systems, and going from one system straight to another. Afrikaans is his first language, so he’s getting to think in English for the first time in his playing career, which a lot of people underestimate. No, he’s very good, very lively, very quick, very attack-minded, so he’ll very much suit the game that we’re trying to play.”
Inside the stand-off, Nathan Fowles swaps places with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne who is on the bench. Outside him Burleigh, fresh from his Test debut against Australia, and James Johnstone team up in the midfield. Another South African in the sizeable shape of Van der Merwe starts on one wing with Dougie Fife on the other, Kinghorn filling his customary role at full-back.
It’s a strong line-up and, if the Scotland squad players can bring some of that international magic with them upon their return to club duty, one that should be good enough to beat the Kings who nevertheless came perilously close to snatching their maiden victory in the Guinness Pro14 against the champions Scarlets last week. A last-gasp chance to grab the victory went begging when the Kings made a hash of a lineout.
“I went to watch the game [Kings v Scarlets] when we arrived,” said Cockerill. “The Kings are a dangerous team, they have a lot of pace in that back three, are lively at fly-half and, as you would imagine, have a big forward pack. We have worked hard again this week, we are going to go into the game with a positive mindset on how we are going to play and I would expect us to perform and I expect us to win the game.
“These points are going to be important at the end of the season in qualifying for Europe or trying to push for a top three spot if we can.
“The Kings are a good side, we won’t be taking them lightly. As you saw in their last two games, Ulster and Scarlets, they pushed them all the way. We have got to get it right.”