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'The pressure is on them. Ulster are a team that should expect to beat Edinburgh'

Richard Cockerill is hoping to guide his club into the first final in their history.

“THIS IS MY baby,” says Richard Cockerill by way of explaining why he recently signed a new two-year contract extension as head coach of Edinburgh, who are currently preparing for a Guinness Pro14 semi-final against Ulster on Saturday.

The Cockerill project in the Scottish capital is three years old at this stage and the Englishman has delivered clear progress in that time, although he insists Edinburgh are “batting above our average” when their budget is compared to the Irish provinces still in Pro14 contention this weekend.

Cockerill is as upfront and engaging as ever, meaning he is popular with the Scottish rugby media, but the key to Edinburgh doing their utmost to retain him has been his relentless focus on getting results.

richard-cockerill Cockerill is three years into his time with Edinburgh. Source: Elena Barbini/INPHO

Edinburgh aren’t world-beaters yet but they are an effective team who reached the Champions Cup quarter-finals last season, losing to Munster, and are now in their first-ever semi-final in the Pro14.

The clash with Ulster will be played at an empty Murrayfield, reducing the effect of home advantage, but Edinburgh’s gradual rise is still reflected in the fact that the bookies have them as favourites to advance into the final.

Not that Cockerill is willing to concede as much.

“I’m not sure we can be favourites, surely,” says the Edinburgh boss. “Ulster have won the competition before, they are in the Champions Cup quarter-finals against Toulouse and they are the club with all the history of being successful, so surely that makes them favourites.

“The pressure is on them, they are the team that should deliver. They are a team that should expect to beat Edinburgh. I would think there is more pressure on Ulster to win than us.

“The only pressure we have is from ourselves internally. There is a lot of pressure on Ulster to deliver because they are Ulster and they expect success.”

Ulster boss Dan McFarland will smile at Cockerill’s words, of course, and the pair know each other from McFarland’s time as Scotland forwards coach.

There are two other close links in Ulster forwards coach Roddy Grant, who moved to the northern province from Edinburgh last year, and CEO Jonny Petrie, who also moved from his role as Edinburgh’s managing director last year.

ulster-roddy-grant Forwards coach Roddy Grant moved from Edinburgh to Ulster last year. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Roddy was my forwards coach for two years and Dan was Scotland forwards coach, who sat in at our meetings and watched many of our training sessions, so he knows what is coming,” says Cockerill.

“They are good guys, they have good players and are a good club. There is a lot to like about Ulster rugby. They have nicked plenty of intellect from Edinburgh, nicked the MD, the forwards coach, the head of communication. What else do they want to take from us?

“Dan is a good English coach like myself so let’s get into it.”

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Whatever about his good-natured jibes and protests that Ulster are favourites, ‘Cockers’ is confident about what his team will offer this weekend.

“It doesn’t take a genius to work out what is coming from a team I coach,” admits the 49-year-old.

Edinburgh’s defence has conceded the fewest tries in the Pro14 this season, while only Leinster have conceded fewer points. Defence coach Calum MacRae’s charges have a 90% tackle completion rate, the best in the Pro14, and have conceded the fewest linebreaks in the championship too.

They work extremely hard, are generally very solid at set-piece time, and concede only 10 penalties per game on average. Cockerill says Frank Murphy, who will ref on Saturday, is “world-class.”

Cockerill’s teams have never been regarded as wildly ambitious in attack but this aspect of Edinburgh’s game has developed notably. They have beaten more defenders on average per game than anyone else in the Pro14 this season, while their turnover and kick return attack has been lethal at times.

Players like Bill Mata, Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham, and Duhan van der Merwe are genuine game-breakers.

blair-kinghorn Fullback Blair Kinghorn has game-breaking qualities. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

“Our mentality is that if we get the ball back, the first thought is to attack,” says Cockerill. “So attack first, kick second, and make good decisions around that. We’ve got lots of threats and we’ve got a very good back three.

“We’re a team that can cause problems. We’ve got a very good ball-carrying forward pack and a pretty balanced side that can play all types of rugby. If we need to kick it then we’ll kick it, if we need to run then we’ve got enough threats to be able to score from long distance.”

All of that said, Cockerill stresses that semi-final rugby “is not about entertainment” and there’s no doubt Edinburgh will play risk-free rugby if that’s the best solution for this game. 

Cockerill is well aware of Ulster’s biggest threats and would have watched with keen interest as Leinster limited Stuart McCloskey and Marcell Coetzee’s impact last weekend.

“It is no secret that if you control the 12 and the eight you will be better off than if you didn’t,” says Cockerill.

“Their game pivots around McCloskey at 12 – we know that and they know that but you still have to try and stop him. The eight [Coetzee] is a pretty tidy operator so it will be a great contest between him and Bill Mata.

“We know how to stop them, it’s just a matter of whether we are capable of doing it on the day.”

Cockerill is confident that his team will be mentally in the right place.

“I wish I was playing in it,” says the ex-England hooker, “it’s easier than coaching.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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