JOHN Barclay knows all too well the frustration that the Edinburgh squad felt latterly under Richard Cockerill, having spent the last two seasons of his playing career with the capital club before retiring in mid-2020. When Cockerill was replaced as head coach by Mike Blair this summer, Barclay did not hold back in his assessment of the Englishman’s four years at the helm, insisting that change had been well overdue.
Now that Blair has had time to settle in, Barclay – like the new man a former Scotland captain – is confident that the Edinburgh squad will thrive under the new-found freedom offered them by the coach. In particular, he is sure that, after the over-prescriptive attitude espoused by Cockerill, both the players and the supporters will enjoy the more expansive game plan favoured by Blair.
“You can tell it was a frustrated group,” Barclay, now 34, said of the squad under Cockerill last season. “Results were even more frustrating. They will be super-excited over what lies ahead and for some it will be like coming into a new team. A new coach coming in can make it feel like a fresh start and it will feel like that for players.
“The team needed to evolve and they will be excited about having the opportunity to evolve their style. Look at some of the guys in the backline, some of whom we didn’t see a lot of last year, like Blair Kinghorn. We want to see these guys on the ball playing an exciting brand of rugby. Playing under Mike’s style, I’m really looking forward to watching Edinburgh this season.”
Although the spotlight has been on his preference for players to think on their feet and improvise if and when the occasion arises, Blair has insisted that he has no intention of jettisoning the positive aspects of play that were introduced by Cockerill. Barclay believes that the coach is right to take that approach, which chimes with his own analysis of how things were under the old regime.
“It will evolve,” he insisted. “It’s daft to have a revolution there. There was a lot of good stuff with what they did, but there’s always that need to evolve. They did a lot of good things under Cockers, [for example] the forward play that they were renowned for and that is still going to be required.”
The contrast in style between Blair and Cockerill has been widely seen as a reflection of the two men’s different characters, with the Scot being more effusive and relaxed compared to Cockerill’s relentlessly combative approach. But Barclay believes it is actually a reflection of a far broader shift in rugby coaching, from the old stereotype of a barking sergeant-major to the new, more inclusive approach taken by the likes of Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.
“Mike’s and Gregor’s approaches are very similar in my opinion,” he continued. “They want to empower players.
“And the shift in rugby from when I started until I finished up or until now is essentially players run how the team is going to play – or definitely co-work on that. The guys do it with Scotland, they do it with the Lions, there will be a bit of experience from that. So I would expect those guys to have a bit more of an active role in how the team plays.”
Edinburgh play Benetton in their second and last pre-season friendly this afternoon, then meet Scarlets next Saturday in their first URC match, with both games taking place at the new Edinburgh Rugby Stadium in the shadow of Murrayfield itself. Blair has inherited a team who may have had a dismal time of it in their 2020-21 campaign but last reached the play-offs only two seasons ago, and Barclay thinks that both them and Glasgow Warriors have to have that as their ambition again.
“They will be targeting the play-offs,” he added. “Anything less than that they will be frustrated with.”
John Barclay was speaking at the launch of Premier Sports’ coverage of the URC. Every Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh game in the new world-class league will be live on Premier Sports.