EDINBURGH’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions Cup may have been damaged by their 10-22 loss to Munster on Saturday night, but they have certainly not been extinguished, according to head coach Richard Cockerill.
A top-three finish is the only guarantee of a berth in European rugby’s premier competition, and Edinburgh, who have five games left, are currently 11 points adrift of third-placed Scarlets in PRO14 Conference B. However, they have two matches in hand on the Welsh side, who they meet at Murrayfield on Saturday in what Cockerill believes has become one of a run of must-win matches for his team.
“We’ve got to beat the sides about us, which is Scarlets next week, then Benetton,” the head coach said. “Those are our next two games, so we’ve got to get the points from both those games, it’s as simple as that.
“We play Cardiff, we play Connacht, we play Dragons, so there’s still an opportunity for us to get into the top three. That’s our objective and we’ll keep aiming for that.”
Victory in four of those five remaining games could conceivably be enough for Edinburgh to achieve that objective, but to do that they will have to play at a consistently higher level than they have been able to do so far this season, in which they have only won four out of their 11 league games to date. They will also be without a majority of their Scotland internationals in those remaining games, making their task all the more implausible.
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“Obviously, we’ll have very few of our Test players back for this period – that’s just the nature of it,” Cockerill continued. “Our Test players will be unavailable for two-thirds of this season, which is the way this season has turned out to be. Nobody’s fault, but we just need to keep battling on.”
After appearing too passive in a first half which ended with them 17-3 down, Edinburgh fought back strongly after the break, and were not far away from getting the late score that would have given them a losing bonus point. But there was a distinct lack of cutting edge about their attack – unsurprisingly, given they were without Duhan van der Merwe, Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham. And, while the pack did well at points, they were clearly a significantly less potent outfit without other Scotland internationals such as Rory Sutherland, WP Nel, Simon Berghan, Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson.
“It’s difficult when your whole back three is missing out of your team, who are a lot of your point of difference,” Cockerill added. “It was a difficult night – very wet and windy – and if you give cheap points away it’s very hard to chase it down. But we had opportunities to get back into the game. Credit to the players, because they did that at 17-10, but we just weren’t quite good enough to put that heat on.”
Edinburgh lock Andrew Davidson was carried off on a spinal board as a precaution after injuring his neck in the final minutes of the match, but was able to rejoin the squad for the post-match team talk. He will now be assessed further by the team’s medical staff.
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Munster’s failure to pick up a try bonus means they are now only nine points ahead of Connacht, with both teams having four games to play. The meeting of the two on Friday 5 March could decide which of them ends up on top of the conference and so goes through to the final at the end of that month against the winners of Conference A.
Leinster are five points clear of Ulster at the top of that conference, with both also having four games left. They meet in Belfast on Saturday 6 March.
Before that, Leinster are at home to Glasgow this Sunday in a fixture which kicks off shortly after the France-Scotland Six Nations game is due to end. The Warriors, who lost 13-19 at home to Ulster on Friday, are in an even tougher position than Edinburgh, being 15 points adrift of third-placed Ospreys in Conference A. Danny Wilson’s side have five games to play compared to the Welsh team’s four.