Richard Cockerill: Timing of Edinburgh coach’s departure a surprise as Mike Blair emerges as early frontrunner

Mike Blair is the early frontrunner to replace Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh but the timing of the head coach’s departure has caught supporters by surprise.

Richard Cockerill has left Edinburgh after four seasons as head coach. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

As recently as a fortnight ago the club was trumpeting record sales of season tickets, with over 3,000 having shelled out to watch the club at their new stadium.

Many took to social media to express dismay at Cockerill’s departure after four seasons in charge.

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Edinburgh said the parting of the ways had been by “mutual consent” while Cockerill said the decision was reached following a meeting with Mark Dodson, Scottish Rugby’s chief executive, and Jim Mallinder, the governing body’s director of rugby.

Richard Cockerill with Edinburgh flanker Hamish Watson. Picture: Romain Perrocheau/Getty Images

Blair, who spent 10 years as a player with Edinburgh, would seem an obvious candidate to replace Cockerill. Currently assistant to Gregor Townsend, Blair was appointed Scotland’s interim head coach for the summer tour while Townsend was on Lions duty.

The tour was cancelled due to Covid but the SRU clearly views Blair as head coach material.

Edinburgh’s players returned for pre-season training yesterday and assistant coach Calum MacRae and strength and conditioning chief Nick Lumley have been placed in temporary charge.

The club endured a disappointing 2020-21 season, finishing fifth in their six-club conference in the Guinness Pro14, with only winless Benetton beneath them.

There was also a chastening exit from Europe, with Edinburgh losing 56-3 to Racing 92 in the Champions Cup last 16.

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There was no late bounce in the Rainbow Cup and Cockerill did not disguise the fact that he couldn’t wait for the season to end but it is unclear why it has taken more than five weeks for ties to be severed.

The final straw may have been the loss of Rory Sutherland to Worcester this month. Speaking in May, the coach had been adamant that the prop would be staying.

“Rory is under contract until the end of next season and that’s it,” Cockerill said at the time. “He won’t be released from his contract. He’s an Edinburgh player until his contract runs out and from an Edinburgh and Scotland point of view we’d like to keep him long-term.”

The departure of Sutherland and fellow Lion Duhan van der Merwe, also to Worcester, represented a double-blow to coach and club who were able to persuade two of their other big guns, Hamish Watson and Darcy Graham, to sign new deals.

The travails of 2020-21 were in stark contrast to the previous campaign when Edinburgh won their conference and progressed to the Pro14 semi-finals, losing to Ulster.

The capital side were handicapped this season by being without their Scotland players for the vast majority of the campaign due to the extended international season and Covid restrictions.

But the difficult campaign shouldn’t be allowed to disguise the progress made in the three previous seasons.

Edinburgh were at a low ebb when the former England hooker took over in summer 2017 but he had a galvanising effect.

They finished in third in their conference to qualify for the Champions Cup and won the 1872 Cup back from Glasgow Warriors, a trophy they retained for the next two years.

Cockerill guided Edinburgh into the knockout stages of Europe in each of his four seasons, reaching three quarter-finals in a row before the last-16 loss to Racing in April.

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