All is so rosy in the garden at Edinburgh right now that ever-combative head coach Richard Cockerill was even seen grinning at the touchline at the end of Saturday night’s comprehensive 36-0 win over the Southern Kings.
Cockerill is of course not nearly the ogre he sometimes appears, but he’s a hard man to please and it was tough to pick faults as just about second string side – save for a sprinkling of key characters about the park – scored 19 points in the first 10 minutes in what was little more than an unopposed training run.
This was not entirely surprising given the Kings are easily the Guinness PRO14’s weakest team, but also that the South Africans had a month off from playing even before coming from a white hot African summer to a freezing Edinburgh winter.
During that same month Edinburgh had been hard at the coal face week-on-week and found some rich seams in beating Newcastle and Glasgow home and away. Those retained from that campaign for this game – Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe, Vili Mata and Jamie Ritchie – were playing at a level the Kings couldn’t approach, and they pulled the remainder of their side with them.
A try from Dougie Fife and two from the irrepressible Graham – the second coming when Edinburgh had a five to one overlap – allowed Edinburgh a period of contemplation for much of the rest of the first half. They soaked up a deal of rather tentative probing from the Kings before Rory Sutherland smashed over for the bonus just before half-time.
The second half was pretty much through the motions for all, tries from Simon Berghan – his first for the club – and for Cammy Fenton completing the rout while Edinburgh did have to show some tenacity at the end to defend their line and finish off the “nilling”.
“The focus all week was about being consistent with our previous performance levels and there was a big onus on the young guys tonight,” said assistant coach Duncan Hodge afterwards. “They all did really well.”
Cockerill will no doubt revert to his tried and tested players for the next two weeks against Toulon and Montpellier as Edinburgh seek to close out their Heineken Cup pool and – wonders will never cease – even secure a home quarter-final.
But Saturday’s game, even allowing for the Kings’ haplessness, offered him some pointers for a key spell coming up, the international window of the 6 Nations when Edinburgh’s recent successes are likely to be reflected by Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.
Edinburgh have worked their way into second in their Conference, and have given life to their play-off hopes as well as qualification for Europe next season. But the 6 Nations window is a key, and during that month and a half Edinburgh are scheduled play the Kings (the week before the championship starts, but in South Africa) followed by the Dragons, Cardiff and Benetton, with the two Welsh regions at home.
All those games are winnable on current form, but Cockerill’s going to have to rely heavily at that time on veterans like Fife, Sutherland and Fraser McKenzie and not-international eligible stars like van der Merwe, Jaco van der Walt and Mata.
But he’ll also have to trust in young players like Fenton, Callum Hunter-Hill, Luke Crosbie, young centre George Taylor, and the sprightly scrum-half Charlie Shiel, who was finally given a belated debut off the bench.
Many believe that Shiel, son of former international centre Graham and grandson of Lions scrum-half Dougie Morgan, can be the kind of sparkplug George Horne has been for Glasgow, but he’s got to get chances to show it.
Toulon next week are obviously a seismic step up from this week’s opposition, but the French giants lost again against Finn Russell’s Racing in Paris on Saturday night (big Brian Alainu’uese, the former Glasgow lock, scored a try and picked up a yellow card in defeat) while Montpellier were comfortably beaten at home by Lyon.
It’s all very promising. Edinburgh seem to be going places.