Edinburgh still have five regular-season games to go including tonight’s encounter at BT Murrayfield, and the head coach, as ever, is refusing to take anything for granted. But even the fact that they are in contention at this late stage – five points clear of fourth-placed Ulster in Conference B – is a significant achievement. With his team buoyed by the return of Scotland forwards Simon Berghan and Ben Toolis, Cockerill believes that, if his players do themselves justice, they can at least continue to make life very difficult for the more fancied teams in the competition.
“Our run-in is pretty tough and they’re all important games,” he said. “We’ve managed as a club to put ourselves in a position to compete for a play-off spot, which at the start of the season would have been Utopia for us. For us to be consistently better than Ulster to this stage is pretty good going.
“There are still five big games to go and Ulster still to play, so we’ve proved that – Leinster, Ulster, Glasgow – we can beat the big teams if we can get it right, and Munster’s another test for us. So we’re looking to get our best game on the field, play as well as we can, improve again from Dragons and Ulster and Leinster,” Cockerill continued, referring to his team’s last three games, all of which were won.
“And if Munster come and play their best game and are better than us, then we get what we deserve. But if we’re right on our game there’s no reason why we can’t be in the contest. I’m not sure we’re still competing for the title, but we’re certainly competing to make the bigger teams that we’re competing with sweat.”
The title is almost certainly too big an ask for Edinburgh this time round and, when all the teams return to full strength after the Six Nations, they will be hard pressed to maintain their present position. But morale is higher than it has been for some seasons, and it is sure to be boosted by the return to the squad of Berghan and Toolis, even though Grant Gilchrist has travelled to Rome with the Scotland squad as 24th man.
“Simon Berghan was a pleasant surprise, so good to have him back to add strength to our bench,” Cockerill added. “He didn’t arrive back to our squad until this morning, that’s the reason he’s on the bench. If he’d been here earlier in the week I’m sure he would have started.
“When they’re all fit Scotland are starting to get some strength in depth in that tighthead position, so with [Willem] Nel and [Zander] Fagerson and Berghan, I think it just shows that Scotland have three very good players there. Someone’s got to miss out, this time it’s Simon, and we’re happy to have him back.
“I think Gilco’s played very, very well. Obviously he’ll be bitterly disappointed not to be involved [in the Scotland squad], but I understand why Scotland want to keep him. And to be fair we’ve got Toolis back in our team, with [Fraser] McKenzie and [Lewis] Carmichael: that’s three very good locks who have all played very well. So although we’ll miss Gilco to a point, Scotland have a job to do and their need is greater than ours at the moment.”