Iain Morrison: Richard Cockerill is conservative but Edinburgh can be adventurous too

The first thing I did after getting home from Murrayfield late on Friday night was to log on to the Champions Cup website and confirm that Edinburgh had indeed won Pool 5 and Glasgow had also qualified for the quarter-finals as a result. I already knew it was true, obviously, I just wanted the reassurance of seeing it in black and white on an official site. It's been a long time coming.

Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill. Picture: SNS
Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill. Picture: SNS

Edinburgh’s success has been built upon their set piece and their staunch defensive efforts, for which their defence coach Calum MacRae deserves some credit. The team missed 20 tackles during Friday’s 19-10 win over Montpellier, a little on the high side, but the French side field as big and powerful a team as you will find anywhere in club rugby and occasional lapses are inevitable. If one player did get bumped in contact, there were two more willing to take his place.

The set piece was indomitable. Edinburgh’s lineout success on Friday was 100 per cent, nine from nine, and the same with the set scrum, where they won all 11 of their own feeds and milked a few penalties on the opposition ball (while conceding one penalty themselves in the second half).

Richard Cockerill is a conservative coach in charge of a conservative team but, as he likes to remind us, there is more than one way to play rugby and Edinburgh have proved they can be a little more adventurous if needs be. Against Toulon last weekend they threw the ball around to tire the heavy pack of home forwards. On the day Edinburgh made 17 kicks from hand and 215 passes, or 13 passes for every kick.

On Friday night Edinburgh went back to basics, not risking a high tempo game at least until they fell behind in the second half, kicking 28 times while making 132 passes – or five passes for every kick. It may have been a desire to play low-risk rugby with so much at stake but you can’t help wondering whether Edinburgh might have won a little more comfortably had they pursued the same, high-tempo style of play that saw off Toulon last weekend.

Many of those kicks came from the boot of scrum-half Henry Pyrgos who gave nothing away to Ruan Pienaar, one of the best operators in the world.

Edinburgh scored just the one try against Montpellier, a second-half effort from the inimitable Darcy Graham preceded by a relentless maul from the Edinburgh forwards. They relied instead on the boot of stand-off Jaco van der Walt who kicked four from five penalties plus that touchline conversion.

The South African is an understated 10 who does the job with little fuss and, while the diametric opposite of Scotland’s Finn Russell, he seems to suit Edinburgh’s more studied approach.

Van der Walt sits so deep in the pocket that he can hardly see the gain line never mind attack it. Somehow the stand-off was credited with carrying the ball for zero metres on Friday, which must have been difficult to do for a 10. He does have a tendency to crab across the field, taking away space from his outside backs and his distribution is occasionally awry. Van der Walt almost gifted his opposite number Johan Goosen an interception try late on Friday evening which would have made the final ten minutes a lot more interesting.

“I was quite nervous when I saw him coming through. Luckily he dropped the ball so I was quite relieved,” the South African said with understatement.

“There was some Afrikaans flying about there. Me and Pierre [Schoeman] heard Frans Steyn speaking it to the other guys and it was quite nice to be able to understand what they were saying. Obviously I then told the boys next to me what he had said!”

Never meet your heroes, the saying goes, but Van der Walt was sporting a broad smile on his face after encountering his childhood pin up. Frans Steyn caused quite a commotion when he first broke through, helping South Africa lift the 2007 Rugby World Cup and Edinburgh’s fly-half was a wide-eyed 13-year-old teenage wannabe at the time.

“Playing against him for the first time on Friday night was quite nice. I actually wanted a photo afterwards but I’m not going to be that guy,” admitted the Edinburgh No.10 who argued that the players were possibly the only ones not surprised by Edinburgh’s steely progress into the play-offs.

“We definitely always had belief,” he insisted. “Just look at the boys’ performance against Montpellier. We stuck in and we really couldn’t have done it without the forward pack. We’re full of confidence at the moment. We just need to keep it and focus on the rest of the season.

“We took confidence even from the game we lost in Montpellier. It’s not nice to lose your first game but we came back stronger, made progress and just focused on every game as it came.”

It worked and now Edinburgh look set to face Munster at Murrayfield when the Champions Cup returns in the last weekend of March – that fixture will be confirmed today depending on Leinster’s result at Wasps. The Irish province have a proud history in this competition but they won’t relish playing against an Edinburgh team who are brim full of belief.

“We just need to focus on our next job, go through the videos and do our homework,” says the unfazed stand-off. “We need to treat the quarter-final as just another game and keep our confidence. If we do that, I think we’ll be good.”