Richard Cockerill eyes quick change in fortunes for Edinburgh

Stuart McInally will replace Ross Ford when Edinburgh face Benetton Rugby tonight. Picture: SNS/SRU
Stuart McInally will replace Ross Ford when Edinburgh face Benetton Rugby tonight. Picture: SNS/SRU
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If the fact that his Edinburgh team are currently anchored at the bottom of the Conference B food chain bothers Richard Cockerill he does a decent job of hiding the fact.

However, the coach must be painfully aware that, with one win in four outings so far, they cannot afford another loss this evening to the ever-improving Italian outfit, Benetton Rugby.

“No,” he replied when asked if he was feeling the heat. “If you get two positive results in the next two weeks those dynamics change very quickly. So I think just worrying about the league table is a little bit of fool’s gold, really.

“We’ve got to make sure that we get those two positive results in the next two weeks and then suddenly we’re right back in the mix and we go into Europe. Then we have Zebre away then Scarlets here during the international window. The next four league games are very important for us.”

This is only Edinburgh’s second home game this season, but it is Benetton’s fourth fixture on the road in five weeks which suggests that the PRO14 schedule is still being thrashed out on an Amstrad computer. The importance of today’s match to Cockerill is evidenced by the influx of international players who were rested for last weekend’s trip to Dublin.

Grant Gilchrist replaces Fraser MacKenzie in the second row, WP Nel comes in for his fellow countryman Pierre Schoeman, who is beginning a four-week ban for illegal use of his elbow, and will play alongside another South African import in the form of Allan Dell. Centre Mark Bennett is of course out for months following his injury against Ulster.

Skipper Stuart McInally reclaims the No 2 shirt from Ross Ford. Hamish Watson also returns to join Bill Mata and Magnus Bradbury in an impressive looking back row.

“It’s a very strong side, isn’t it?” said Cockerill when asked if this was his strongest team. “I mean there’s some guys that pick themselves to a point; obviously Schoeman would come into that category as well, so would Mark Bennett. Yeah, we’re starting to get a settled pattern of selection.

“There’s Luke Hamilton as well, who’s played very well for us and he has a rest this week because he’s a bit battered and bruised. Magnus at six with Mata and Watson is a pretty well-balanced back row and gives us some real strength at the breakdown and with our ball carry.

“Yeah, look, it’s pretty much our full-strength side. But that’s for this week, really.”

In the backs Henry Pyrgos and Simon Hickey resume their burgeoning half-back partnership while all eyes will be on Blair Kinghorn’s form at full-back following news that Stuart Hogg is to miss the autumn internationals after surgery on his ankle.

“It’s good to have them back,” said Cockerill when asked about his returning Test players. “They’ve had a week’s downtime and a little bit of recovery. It was always the plan from last week to bring them back in, because these two games are very important for us.

“It’s an important time of year because they need to play well for us,” he emphasised after someone made an unwelcome allusion to the November Tests. “I’m not bothered about Scotland if that’s your inference on that. We need to play with the intent that we played with at Ulster and carry on from Connacht.

“I thought we did some good things last week at Leinster. So we just need to keep our level of performance high, and those international boys need to show that they’re of Test quality.

“Simple as that. They’ve got to do it at club level, because it won’t just happen at international level. They all need to perform well. It’s an important couple of weeks for us in the league.”

Rory Sutherland makes his first appearance in the Edinburgh squad this season, starting the game on the substitutes’ bench. Chris Dean gets a chance to cement his place at outside centre following the long-term injury to Bennett. Dougie Fife and Duhan van der Merwe fill in on the flanks as usual; the latter tasked with stopping Benetton’s powerhouse Fijian winger Iliesa Tavuyara who already has one try to his name this season.