Under the direct, effective guidance of Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh, against all expectations, made the play-offs in the new Pro14 competition and qualified for the Champions Cup for the first time since the 2013/14 season.
With Edinburgh now on the up and set to face Europe’s best once more, how will they fare next season?
In the Pro 14, Edinburgh will hope to better last seasons’ finish and progress further into the play-offs this time.
Richard Cockerill will not want standards to slip domestically even with the increased standards of the Champions Cup requiring more of his squad. Furthermore, this is Cockerill’s second season: these are early days for him, and even though the team performed much better than he would have expected, he will expect Edinburgh to maintain and better their previous performance. Opening fixtures away at Ospreys and Ulster will not scare the players or the fans going into this season so there is an opportunity for a good start. The strong core developed last season at Edinburgh, along with additional signings, can achieve the play-offs again this coming season – qualification is the minimum expectation.
In the Champions Cup they have an extremely tough group and won’t really be expected to get out of it. The pool consists of high spending French powerhouses Montpellier and the Toulon ‘Galacticos’, rounded off with a Newcastle Falcons side whose evolution under Dean Richards saw them contest the Premiership play-offs last season. Many fans, including me, will see this as an incredible challenge and Edinburgh will no doubt be the underdogs of this group. This might suit them nicely; no expectation to qualify and a higher level of regular opposition for a young developing squad provides Edinburgh with a chance to create a new standard of consistent performance thanks to the higher level required.
Despite the positives of Champions Cup rugby the first victim of Edinburgh’s new-found success could, unfortunately, be themselves. They will have a larger target on their back because of what they are capable of, meaning increased effort against them from all teams in the Pro14. The demand for higher intensity performances every week, allied with the second front of the Champions Cup, could prove to be crippling on Edinburgh’s resources. Over the course of a year their league standing domestically could suffer as a result, leaving fans feeling nostalgic about the highs of last season.
Sam Hidalgo Clyne and Duncan Weir both had great ends to the season and won crucial games during the campaign – such as Weir masterminding the comeback victory away at Connacht. Now departed, Sam Hidalgo Clyne moves to Pro14 play-off rivals, the Scarlets, while Weir moves on to the Gallagher Premiership with Worcester. They are not the only ones to have left: Cornell Du Preez, Jason Tovey and Phil Burleigh have all moved on. Other than Jaco Van der Walt, that left a serious lack of options at 10 and if Van der Walt were to get injured, who comes in – Calum McLelland?
Although there has definitely been a clear out in some key positions, Cockerill has not forgotten to fill in what has been vacated and has recruited plenty of new players.
From the Academy, Jason Baggott (standoff), George Taylor (centre/wing) and Charlie Shiel (scrum-half) have been promoted to the senior squad. Matt Scott returns from his stint at Gloucester, Henry Pyrgos makes the switch from Glasgow and Simon Hickey, a Kiwi fly-half from Bordeaux Begles, joins to bolster the squad in that key playmaker role. The additional signing of Juan Pablo Socino, a fly-half/centre, from Champions Cup opponents Newcastle Falcons, provides crucial midfield cover for internationals like Scott, Bennett and potentially even Chris Dean, depending on how his year goes.
In the pack, John Barclay also joins the squad, but won’t be fit until after the new year, so newly capped Luke Hamilton, formerly a Leicester Tigers back-row under Cockerill (just) has also been added. These are all quality signings with the potential to improve the side from the previous year and there is a scattering of international talent like Pierre Schoeman, Senitiki Nayalo and Pietro Ceccarelli to fill out depth and cover.
Cockerill has recruited both Scottish and foreign players, meaning this squad should be well stocked for the full season provided not too many of the top class signings are called up to the national squad. The forward pack is not quite at the level of other sides like Munster and Leinster, but the strengthening of that unit will come with experience and playing time. Their attitude last season was excellent and the new signings can only improve things, you hope.
Next season will be a new challenging experience for what is still quite a young group of players, but one they will relish. With the bullish winning mentality created by Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh will be expected to compete on both fronts this season: not only to match last season’s accomplishments but to exceed them.
Glasgow Warriors no longer bear the sole responsibility of representing Scotland on the biggest stage of European club rugby; Edinburgh will not be prepared to lie down and will be looking to send a message to the teams of Europe as to why they belong at this level.