Scottish Rugby haven’t even waited until the end of the season before signing up Richard Cockerill to a contract extension with Edinburgh Rugby that will keep him at the club until the end of the 2020-21 campaign.
The former Leicester Tigers coach has had a remarkable first year with the club, turning a team that won just six games in 2016-17 into a 14-win team on the cusp of the Guinness PRO14 play-offs.
Edinburgh will make the play-offs if Ulster fail to win with a bonus point against Glasgow Warriors at the Kingspan Stadium tonight, but can clinch it themselves and the 1872 Cup in the third-leg of the inter-city contests against the Warriors at BT Murrayfield next week.
Cockerill initially signed a two-year deal in the spring of last year when he was still acting head coach at Toulon in France, having been fired after eight years as head coach and director of rugby with Leicester, for whom he had a distinguished playing career as a hooker winning 27 caps for England.
“I saw this as a fresh challenge and have really enjoyed getting stuck in at Edinburgh,” said Cockerill. “There is still a lot to do at the club and I wanted to stay and continue working with a great group of fellow coaches and hard-working players.
“We are building a better squad and a better culture, bit by bit, with the aim of improving results and making us more competitive and consistent.
“The support I’ve received from Scottish Rugby since I arrived has been first-class and I’m excited about what the future will hold for Edinburgh Rugby if we continue to apply ourselves in the right way.”
The performance of the team this season has been highlighted by the fact that budget constraints meant Cockerill had to make do largely with the squad he inherited from last season, with only a handful of additions, many plucked from unusual sources.
The club’s biggest signing, Scotland centre Mark Bennett, suffered a serious knee injury shortly after signing and didn’t play until February, while the other big signing Robbie Freuan had to retire because of recurring heart problems.
Two South Africans, Jaco van der Walt and Duhan van der Merwe were signed at the end of the southern hemisphere season but Cockerill has been creative with others, “poaching” James Johnstone and Dougie Fife from the Scotland 7s squad, and signing a number of stop-gaps after a succession of front row injuries, notably Darryl Marfo who ended up as a Scotland international by November.
But Cockerill’s work with Edinburgh’s exciting young talent like Blair Kinghorn, Magnus Bradbury, Chris Dean and Jamie Ritchie has been exceptional, and his regime has provided a real spark for established veterans like Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist to become Scotland regulars.
Edinburgh have gone on runs of five successive wins twice this season, beat Glasgow in the opening 1872 Cup match despite playing most of the match with 14 men, defeated all four Irish provinces in the PRO14 for the first time in years and reached the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup.
In addition, Cockerill has dealt well with disciplinary difficulties that resulted in suspensions to two of his Scotland internationalists, Bradbury – who he originally made team captain – and John Hardie.
Scottish Rugby Chief Executive, Mark Dodson, said: “I have been delighted by the impact Richard has had since his arrival and so it was the right decision to retain his services through to 2021.
“We have worked hard to secure a world-class coaching group in Scotland and Richard has put down strong foundations which is both improving our players and underpinning the work being done off the pitch to take the club forward.
“I know Richard sees Edinburgh Rugby as a long-term project and while there has been a positive start we all expect the progress to continue in the coming seasons.”
Cockerill’s decision to stay is a statement of intent to Edinburgh fans still concerned with the club’s failure to find a permanent base in the city, having abandoned their proposed move to Myreside this season.
Plans are advancing – thought to focus on a stadium built with temporary stands on the Murrayfield back pitches – but managing director Jonny Petrie said Cockerill’s impact had been profound.
“Richard’s influence can’t be overstated in terms of giving the players and coaches a clear view of what is required to be more competitive and generally raising standards throughout the club,” he said.
“I am pleased he will be extending his tenure with us which will support the exciting work being done off the pitch to continue the recent momentum we are generating.”