‘We needed to change’ - Grant Gilchrist on Richard Cockerill, Mike Blair and Edinburgh’s turbulent summer

He is one of Edinburgh’s longest serving players, so when Grant Gilchrist speaks it pays to listen. The forward sat down this week to talk about the turbulent summer at the capital club and did so in a calm, measured manner.

New Edinburgh head coach Mike Blair has brought a "freshness" to the club, according to Grant Gilchrist. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

He made it clear change had to happen after a season in which Edinburgh failed to match the high standards set in the previous three campaigns under Richard Cockerill. The Scottish Rugby Union agreed, and Cockerill’s reign as head coach was ended last month “by mutual consent”.

Ten years after making his debut, Gilchrist is now preparing for the new season under Mike Blair, the fourth permanent coach he has played under at the club.

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Blair, who captained Edinburgh and was a team-mate of Gilchrist’s, has brought “freshness” and “freedom”, according to the lock. The big test for the new boss is whether he can use those qualities to help bring success to the club.

Grant Gilchrist is playing under his fourth permanent head coach as an Edinburgh player. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

Edinburgh won only five of 16 Guinness Pro14 games last season in finishing second bottom in Conference B, with only the winless Benetton beneath them. It was a far cry from the previous campaign when Cockerill’s side were top dogs, pipping Munster for first place before squandering a home play-off semi-final against Ulster.

The decline was stark, although the absence of the club’s international contingent for most of last season cannot be underestimated. Nevertheless, Gilchrist is adamant that changes were required, a message that was communicated to the club by the players.

“We’re involved in a feedback process at the end of the season,” he explained. “We didn’t know what was going to be done with that - we weren’t involved in any kind of decision-making - but it was clear from the review process that we needed to change a few things having under-performed.

“In professional sport that’s what happens if you’ve had a poor season. There was some feedback that we gave as players that we felt it was important to change. The union had their own review and feedback process and we are where we are now with a new coach.”

Richard Cockerill left Edinburgh last month after four seasons in charge. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

Gilchrist, who was co-captain last season, insists the players had no direct say in Cockerill’s removal - “that’s not our job to decide things like that” - but he makes it clear they offered an honest appraisal of what was working and what was not.

“We spoke directly to Cocker as our head coach and we made sure as a player group that we didn’t want to be involved in anything political around suggesting these things,” added Gilchrist who highlighted “the strong foundations” put in place by Cockerill who revitalised the club when he took over and took them into the knockout stages of Europe in each of his four seasons in charge.

“We’ve had success: last year highlighted that we need to evolve, whether that was with Cocker or without Cocker. It’s turned out that it’s without, and we’re in a great position to evolve in certain areas,” said the Scotland international.

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Gilchrist says the players wanted more freedom to take responsibility on the pitch but that it wasn’t always forthcoming. The lock said he had to push the coach to allow him to have more influence on lineout drills and that it was harder for the less forceful players to have their say.

“We would push for more and more responsibility as players, which wasn’t always given,” said Gilchrist. “It was his style and it had merits, it had success. But it had to evolve, and when it didn’t, that’s where inevitably there became a change.

“As such a strong leader, he led on every area. In my area of the game, the lineout, I would keep pushing, but that’s not in everyone’s nature. So some people took a back seat and let Cockers lead on everything. As players you’ve got to be really involved in your area and in the whole game plan, and that’s maybe what was missing.”

Blair was appointed Edinburgh’s new coach four days after Cockerill’s departure and it is clear his less autocratic approach has been welcomed by the players.

“After four years of one style it feels fresh and feels new, and that can be exciting,” said Gilchrist. “I think that has rejuvenated the playing group, especially some guys who were maybe feeling worse than others.

“I think overall we’re in a good place now and I want to talk about the future of Edinburgh. Cocker has done a good job in setting us up. We weren’t able to evolve the culture and the game plan to a place where we could kick on, and I think that’s where Mike has come in, and we’re really excited by a former player, someone who’s got a respect for the work that’s been done and understands the value in what’s been done over the last four years - but also the things that have to be better.

“And that’s not any slight on Cockers, that’s just the fact that there’s a lot of things we need to do better having had a poor season. That balance of keeping those fundamentals but also bringing in a freedom, bringing in a confidence, especially to the way we attack, is really exciting the boys. They’re lapping it up.

“The way we’ve trained over the last four or five weeks, that balance between the discipline that has been ingrained in us and that new freedom in certain areas is certainly something that’s really exciting and you can feel the buzz around the place.”

Gilchrist, who made his debut under Michael Bradley in 2011, then played under Alan Solomons before Cockerill took the reins at Edinburgh in 2017. There were also stints under caretakers Stevie Scott and Duncan Hodge.

“I hope this is the last time I go through a change in coach because it’s not nice, it’s not something anyone sets out to see but it’s professional sport,” said Gilchrist. “It happens to players, it happens to coaches, and the most important thing is the club continues and the club gets better.”

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