Smith: I have to select my best players
Heriot’s coach defends Cochrane role
WHILE Heriot’s unquestionably enjoyed their BT Cup final success at Murrayfield last weekend and Ayr, who lost out to Melrose in the semis, would certainly have loved to have been there too, neither club made any secret of the fact that today’s Premiership grand final at Millbrae is the one that really matters.
Winning the cup is nice — but being league champions is the proof that you are top dogs.
There is certainly much at stake and Heriot’s coach Phil Smith has stuck to his guns over the thorny issue of parachuting the vastly experienced Edinburgh professional Neil Cochrane into his squad for the first time this season last weekend, with the 32-yearold on the bench again this afternoon. Cochrane is expected to take the field sooner rather than later, as Heriot’s go hunting for the double.
Smith is hoping that the man who has captained Edinburgh on a number of occasions during the last two seasons can make as big an impact this time out as he did last week.
However, the coach was also at pains to point out that while Cochrane clearly added value to the team, the suggestion that he singlehandedly won the match for Heriot’s is well wide of the mark.
“He scored two tries but they were not Neil Cochrane tries,” said Smith. “They were Heriot’s forward pack tries. They got together and drove the line-out and he was at the back to get the ball down.
“Of course, he made a difference. He is a good player with a lot of experience and that is why we picked him. He won us a few turnovers, he hit his line-outs, but the really big thing he did — which I did not appreciate until I spoke to the guys afterwards — is that he brought a calmness when things were getting a bit tense and the players were beginning to feel the pressure.
“He helped everyone refocus by saying ‘It is fine. It is all under control. This is what we need to do. If we do that, everything is going to be OK’. It might not seem like a lot but having that voice of reason there at crucial moments can be the difference between winning and losing.”
Smith admitted that telling club stalwart Stewart Mustard that he was going to miss out so that Cochrane could be included in the squad was a horrible moment but felt that he had little choice in the matter.
Smith said: “We play within the rules that are laid out for us. My job is to pick the best team available to me to win the most games possible — and when Neil was released by Edinburgh for the match, that meant putting him in the squad. That is the nature of competitive sport.”
It should be pointed out that Cochrane’s opposite number last weekend was George Turner — a fellow Edinburgh professional, although significantly less experienced — and Ayr have selected James Malcolm, who has played in 13 games for Glasgow Warriors this season, at hooker for today’s match.
Heriot’s also have Glasgow Warriors pairing Jason Hill and Glenn Bryce in their squad. But as both those players have long-standing connections with the club and have played a number of games at this level already this season, their selections are not quite so controversial. Former Heriot’s star Junior Bulumakau, who has played four times for Glasgow Warriors this year, is on the wing for the hosts.
Using club rugby as a vehicle for giving professional players game time is established practice, and is generally welcomed by the clubs in the top flight as a way of raising standards.
However, the problem is in defining the scenarios when it starts to compromise the integrit y of the competition.
Perhaps a system similar to the protocol for players dual registered at club level — whereby they are not allowed to play for the lower-ranked side in the last three league games of the season or in the quarter-final stages or beyond of the cup, unless they have played at least 50 per cent of their previous 1st XV matches with that club — is worth considering.
Ayr are at home today by virtue of finishing nine points clear at the summit of the Premiership table at the end of the regular season.
And they made an impressive declaration of intent when blasting Melrose aside three weeks ago in their play-off semi-final.
However, their slip-up against the same opposition in the BT Cup semifinal the week before that shows that they are fallible if the opposition can stop them building up a full head of steam early on.
Ayr have won the last three encounters between these two teams — but Heriot’s refusal to accept defeat means that only a foolhardy punter would wager more than their pocket change on the outcome.
UNREPENTANT: Heriot’s coach Phil Smith has defended his decision to pick Edinburgh’s Neil Cochrane