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Malone is relishing the opportunity to foil his old pal Cockerill

 

By Jonathan Bradley

As a coach with a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, Edinburgh boss Richard Cockerill has always seemed a man who lives by the mantra that you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

Whether it's implementing Sunday training sessions, stripping his captain of the armband or publicly describing his squad as "too soft", the former England international has dealt in home truths throughout his first season in the Scottish capital.

While there can be no arguing with results, given that his side have reeled off seven wins in their last nine league games, any players still nursing hurt feelings would likely find a sympathetic ear in the opposing coaching box when they take on Ulster in Kingspan Stadium on Friday night (7.35pm kick-off).

With Niall Malone an elegant out-half and Cockerill a teak-tough hooker, the friendship back in their Leicester days will have been an unlikely one, with the Ulster skills coach admitting they had some ups and downs along the way.

"He used to bully the hell out of me," laughed Malone. "He really scared me, frightened me actually. I went to his wedding so we must have had quite a good relationship by the end of it but he used to bully me to pieces."

Having won a pair of Premiership titles as head coach of the Tigers, as well as taking them to a Heineken Cup final, and even ending up as part of a Toulon outfit competing in the Top 14 final during his brief sojourn on the Cote d'Azur, success has followed Cockerill and there is no surprise he has revitalised things at Myreside.

Having beaten Leinster last week, Edinburgh trail Ulster by just three points in the race for the Guinness PRO14 Conference B's final play-off spot, and Malone believes they are in as good a place as they've been for years.

"He's turned them around," he said. "I was amazed when he went to Edinburgh. I couldn't really see the link between him and Edinburgh when it was announced, but he's done really well. You can see his characteristics coming through.

"They had good players but they didn't seem to sort of gel or fight it out the way they have this year. Up front they look like an old-fashioned Munster team, they look tough and rugged and they didn't used to look like that.

"That's what characterises his personality and I think he's had an instant impact, making them more aggressive and more competitive.

"They've been more impressive than any time that I've been in this job. They're the best Edinburgh team we've played in a few years."

Presumably offering something of a different coaching style is Jared Payne. The utility back has missed Ulster's entire season to date but the Irish international has been assisting in the team's defensive work following the departure of Les Kiss last month.

"He's stepped up this week," said Malone of the British and Irish Lion battling recurring headaches since the summer.

"As a player he was like a coach on the pitch as it was, and in team meetings he would always lead so that's been seamless.

"He was usually standing in the back row telling people what to do in the meetings but now he's at the front, and it's so effortless for him.

"The key thing is that I think every single person in the squad thinks he's the best player or one of the best we have, so when he speaks everybody listens.

"I can't wait to see how the team responds to his coaching because on the training pitch it's been really interesting. He's having his lunch with the coaches now so he's getting a bit of ribbing. If he can sort our defence out and improve it then I think we'll all be very happy with that."

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