Edinburgh have no choice but to give the Montpellier mammoths the run-around at Stade Altrad if they are to get anything from their Heineken Champions’ Cup opener today, believes Richard Cockerill.
The Vern Cotter-coached French side’s resources are such that their third choice stand-off due to injuries is Ruan Pienaar, and they can shrug off other absences to still put one of the biggest packs that will be seen on the opening weekend of European competition.
Cockerill has coached some pretty big forward units at Leicester and Toulon so he knows exactly what his side is up against.
“I think they’ll come at us from everywhere, but they’ve got a forward pack that is very big and very physical, and if they can get on top of us upfront and get their power game going then we’ll struggle because in European terms we’re not a massive team,” he said.
“We have to be smart enough around the setpieces to hold our own and put them under pressure, and keep the ball-in-play time high.
“The ball’s in play for an average of 30 minutes in the Top 14 and 40 minutes in the PRO14, so we’ve got to make that pay for us. We’re not going to be able to bash, smash and outmuscle them but I expect us to compete with them, for sure.”
Cockerill has reverted to his strongest possible side, with only one injury absence in wing Duhan van der Merwe; a loss mitigated by Montpellier being without their Fijian giant Nemani Naholo. But the head coach is adamant that Europe is a sideshow for Edinburgh this season.
“We put out our strongest team every week because we need to be winning league games,” he argued. “I don’t think we’re in a position to rest our best players in the league to make them ready for Europe, that doesn’t make any sense.
“The reality is, it’s probably not realistic that we’re going to go deep into this competition, and the league is very important to us. And while the European Cup is important as well, we have to get the balance between being consistent and playing well through the season.”
The balance is that all the pressure to perform is on Montpellier, continued Cockerill.
“It’s one of those things, we’re the underdog and when you have a team like Vern’s – and I’ve been there myself with Leicester and Toulon – everything you do is probably not good enough,” he added. “When you win, you should do, when you lose, it’s probably a little bit of a disaster.
“We can come and play and do our thing and see where we get to because no-one thinks we can go there and win. The sum of our parts has to be really good, the collective’s got to be strong and everybody’s got to be on their best game.
“If we do that we give ourselves a chance. We are going to go at them as hard as we can and we are going to try and make it as tough a contest as possible.”
Matt Scott returns in the inside centre slot while Edinburgh have an all-international pack as well, with Allan Dell and WP Nel returning to prop captain Stuart McInally.
Cockerill has named two back rowers in Luke Hamilton and Jamie Ritchie on the bench instead of an extra lock, surely in the hope that the pace game will be just as effective in the late going.
Edinburgh team: Blair Kinghorn; Darcy Graham, James Johnstone, Matt Scott, Dougie Fife; Simon Hickey, Henry Pyrgos; Allan Dell, Stuart McInally (capt), WP Nel; Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist; Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson, Bill Mata.
Replacements: Ross Ford, Rory Sutherland, Simon Berghan, Luke Hamilton, Jamie Ritchie, Sean Kennedy, Jaco van der Walt, Chris Dean.