Turning on to Edinburgh’s game against Benetton in Italy at the weekend, my initial response was something rare for the club in recent times – laughter.
I missed the very start of the United Rugby Championship and much of the pre-season because of golf commitments, so I’m late in catching up with the post-Cockers landscape.
The erstwhile head coach, you’ll recall, was ousted on the very first day of pre-season training after four reasonably successful years in the post.
I use “reasonably”, because while Edinburgh were undeniably more competitive under Richard Cockerill, they lost the really big matches they forced their way into. And really, the most consistent entertainment to be had from Edinburgh during his tenure were his press conferences rather than anything on the pitch.
Blair’s succession inevitable, although speeded up
💬'It's definitely an exciting time to be an Edinburgh player."
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) October 6, 2021
Anyway he’s been succeeded, quite predictably, by Mike Blair. The former captain of the club and of Scotland and most recently Gregor Townsend’s attack/skills coach was clearly earmarked for a pro team post at some point.
The word that seeped out was that Cockers’ sergeant-major stylings had lost their lustre in the Edinburgh dressing room. It was fine when they needed bullying into shape, but it seemed once the new culture was ingrained, the players were over it.
I get all that. But it also seemed altogether too convenient.
Blair needed to step up to a head coaching job. There were no vacancies. Cockerill was paid a lot more than Glasgow’s Danny Wilson, who as another ex-member of Gregor Townsend’s staff sings from the same hymn sheet as the national coach. Blair is very much Gregor’s coaching protégé…
A complete change in philosophy
You get the idea. And nothing I say that made me actually laugh at events in Italy has undermined this thought.
I should say that the laughing was not derisory. It’s just I’ve never seen such a complete and utter, 180 degree, manifestly obvious and unsubtle change in philosophy in all my days.
Under Cockers, Edinburgh were station-to-station, three phases followed by a box kick, never chance anything in your own half and rarely in the opposition’s.
This Edinburgh were running from all parts. Shadow of your own posts? Hell, spin it to Darcy and see what happens. Henry Immelman, the new full-back, loves an offload, even under retreat and often without looking.
You could reasonably expect anything between 12-15 box kicks a game from Edinburgh. I assume it’s either not a strength of Ben Vellacott’s game or he gets fined if he tries one now.
Vellacott, who has an interesting history which will make for a good tale when he probably makes the Scotland squad this autumn, has been a revelation at 9.
Old habits might help sometimes…
Now THAT is a tap pen!
— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) September 28, 2021
Edinburgh’s new pace of play stems largely from the good ball the pack provide – it’s still pretty much Cockers’ eight – but Vellacott’s urgency. He loves a snipe and a quick tap.
The only thing was that Edinburgh were a bit too loose, and didn’t close out a game they should have won. Henry Pyrgos, Cockers’ on-field generalissimo, would have been perfect to put his foot on the ball in the late going. But he wasn’t even on the bench.
But while a bit of balance and using the old habits might work well in some situations, I’m fully on board with the new Edinburgh.
Over at Scotstoun, Glasgow blitzed the hapless Sharks to a first half try bonus point. So far, the input of the “superior” South African franchises has not resulted in a smidgeon of difference from the cruelly discarded Cheetahs and Kings.
The Warriors still look to entertain
I’ve always been puzzled by some Warriors’ fans distrust of the philosophy of Wilson. His last head coach job was at Cardiff. At that time the Blues were among the most open and attacking teams in Europe.
He’s said before that was down to necessity as there was a lack of power forwards at Arms Park. But even though he has more now, the Warriors are still among the more creative teams in the league.
If both the pro teams are playing like this, then the 1872 Cup this year is going to a blast. And it makes you wonder, is this a message coming down from on high?
Gregor Townsend is back from a Lions tour where, in the test matches, the tourists played some deadly dull rugby. I was puzzled at the time as Gregor was attack coach. Until Finn Russell came on in the third test, the Lions didn’t do much creative attacking.
Back in his own big seat, is Gregor directing operations across Scotland’s professional spectrum in an entirely different style than he and we endured in South Africa?
It makes sense. The three Lions tests with the Springboks have been an enormous outlier in international rugby in 2021. The Six Nations, with Townsend, Wayne Pivac and Fabien Galthie directing tactics, was enormous fun.
Springboks have a Plan B after all
— Super Rugby/TRC (@SuperRugby) October 5, 2021
The Rugby Championship just finished had some super entertainment. Even the “Just do Plan A better” Springboks came out of their rigid structure a little to beat New Zealand.
After the Lions tour, Stuart Hogg opined that someone playing fluid, attacking rugby would handily beat the Springboks. He was right, but he thought it would be in Europe this November. Turns out it was actually the widely discounted Wallabies – and they did it twice.
It gives me real hope that the times of the Rassie-ball and Gat-ball has already passed. I’m still sceptical about the new rule changes enacted for this season. But they don’t seem to be doing too much harm – so far.
November will be the acid test, of course. Pre-season optimism usually ends in disappointment. But the portents for some real fun are good for 2021-22.