Edinburgh v La Rochelle: Richard Cockerill hatches plan to tire out French side’s big beasts

Richard Cockerill has a cunning plan to get Edinburgh’s Heineken Champions Cup campaign off to a winning start.

La Rochelle's formidable tighthead prop Uini Atonio weighs almost 24 stone. Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images
La Rochelle's formidable tighthead prop Uini Atonio weighs almost 24 stone. Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

It involves turning one of La Rochelle’s biggest strengths into a weakness and making the most of Murrayfield’s large pitch.

The French side are riding high in the Top 14, using their formidable forward strength to muscle their way to the summit. Their big beasts include Uini Atonio, a New Zealand-born France prop who weighs in at close to 24-stone, and Will Skelton, the former Saracens lock who, at 19st 10lb, is almost sylphlike by comparison.

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Mark Bennett, the Edinburgh centre who had a spell with Clermont Auvergne, noted earlier this week that the ball is in play for an average of around 30 minutes per game in the Top 14 compared to 40 minutes in the Pro14. It’s an area Cockerill hopes Edinburgh can exploit.

Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

“We have a game plan that hopefully we will be able to implement,” said the Edinburgh coach. “The ball-in-play time is nearly ten minutes less in the Top14 than it is the Pro14 so it is important to move big guys like Atonio around as they are very good at what they do.

“We want to get them away from that comfort zone and move them around the field and create opportunities through fatigue and get our most dangerous players trying to pick their forwards off in phase play.

“Physically we have to be at our best as the set piece is always going to be critical. Field position will also be critical and, as we have seen in the last 12 months, kicking is going to be important, controlling territory. They are a very dangerous team with or without the ball. They are not rock stars but they have very good players and they are well balanced.”

La Rochelle have won only one of their last six away games in the Champions Cup but it came in Scotland against Glasgow Warriors in the pool stage last season. Despite their modest record on the road Cockerill does not buy into the old saw about the French not travelling well.

“That mindset has gone,” said the coach. “Last week La Rochelle rested a few players and got a point against Lyon away with one eye on this game.

“They are trying to compete on both fronts and go far in Europe. I think they will come with a mentality to progress in the competition.

“Look, of all the people who have a rich history in European competition Ronan O’Gara is one of them.”

The former Ireland stand-off won the Champions Cup twice as a player with Munster and the La Rochelle boss would dearly love to emulate that as a coach. But Cockerill has a good pedigree in this competition too, steering Edinburgh into the quarter-finals two years ago by winning a group that included Montpellier and Toulon.

A repeat performance would be a welcome tonic after the travails of the Pro14 where the capital side sorely missed their international contingent. Cockerill has 11 of those Scotland players back tonight as he targets qualification from the convoluted group format.

“We would like to go as far as we can into the competition. We will find out tomorrow night how realistic that is going to be,” he said.

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