ROBBIE Fruean will make his much-anticipated debut for Edinburgh tonight, and head coach Richard Cockerill is confident that the 29-year-old is ready to make a major impact. The centre, one of five changes from the team that won in Cardiff in last week’s PRO14 opener, has now overcome a niggling knee problem according to Cockerill, who is also wholly confident that the New Zealander’s heart condition poses no risk.
It is now nearly a decade since Fruean needed open-heart surgery after being diagnosed with rheumatic fever – a problem that came to light when he was playing for Wellington in the National Provincial Championship. He joined Edinburgh from Bath in June, having had injury problems in his single season with the English club, and Cockerill accepted that his health record was not perfect. Having said that, however, the coach insisted that his new signing would be of major benefit to the team.
“You have to understand that where we are as a club at the moment, we’re probably not first off the rank when people are choosing clubs to come to,” Cockerill said. “So we have to take a little bit of a risk on some players, and Robbie’s injury history isn’t perfect, but we’ll look after him, we’ll get him fit, and we’ve done that over the last few weeks to get him on the field.
“But he’s quality, he’s very much a class player, and for us to recruit that quality at this point and not be paying very, very top-end money, we have to take slight risks on certain players. I think Robbie’s a good player, a good man, and very much worth the risk, because I think we’ll be able to keep him fit in our environment. He’ll be a great asset to the playing side.
“He came to us with a slight patella tendon issue in his knee, which we’ve been wanting to get rid of rather than having to manage. We’ve been in the process of doing that, and just getting him right: it’s a long season, he’s very important to the group, and we wanted to make sure that when he did finally play he was 100 per cent ready to go.
“Around his heart condition, that’s an ongoing, bigger-picture thing that needs to be exactly right. The rest of it is just normal wear and tear on a player of his age who has played that much rugby.
“Nick Lumley [Edinburgh’s head of strength and conditioning] has done a great job. We’re looking after our players appropriately, and Robbie will be one of those guys who have to be managed around various parts of his body. The more serious one, his heart condition, is 100 per cent fine. He passed all his medical around that, and obviously the bigger picture is that he himself, or ourselves, would never take a risk on that condition anyway.”
Although primarily known as an outside centre who can also play on the wing, Fruean has been named at No 12 tonight, and is likely to play a pivotal linking role between stand-off Duncan Weir and outside centre Chris Dean. Asked what Fruean would bring to his team, Cockerill mentioned his physicality, but also suggested his experience and strength under pressure would provide useful support for the men either side of him.
“Obviously [he has] a lot of experience from the Crusaders and Super Rugby, and a lot of physicality,” the coach continued. “He knows and understands the game very well, he’s a very good talker in attack and defence, and he’ll be really helpful to Dunky Weir and Chris Dean around him.
“And also his physical presence. There’s no doubting he’s a big man, with good feet, and good skills, and hopefully he’ll cause some issues with and without the ball.”
The other changes to Edinburgh’s starting line-up see Michele Rizzo come in for Daryl Marfo at prop, Ben Toolis replace Anton Bresler in the second row, Hamish Watson take over at openside from John Hardie, and Damien Hoyland replace the injured Dougie Fife on the wing. Toolis and Watson are rotational choices, while the coach has decided that Rizzo, the loosehead on loan from his old club Leicester, deserves a start. The Italian international has only been signed for six weeks, but, while Edinburgh’s front-row injury woes are expected to clear up during that time, there is still the possibility of a longer-term arrangement with a player who Cockerill knows and obviously rates.
“It’s six weeks, and that’s set in stone at the moment,” the coach said. “That’s a discussion to have with Leicester at a later date. The other looseheads – Allan Dell hopefully will be available in two or three weeks, Alasdair Dickinson is a longer-term injury with his foot and shoulder, and Rory Sutherland will be back playing November time, hopefully.”
While Cockerill is committed to regular rotation in some departments, the good news for tonight’s starting half-backs, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Duncan Weir, is that the coach is giving them the chance to become a settled partnership. “They both played well in pre-season, and worked very hard in pre-season on the training field. I like to keep the nines and tens combinations reasonably static and together, and have some consistency there.
“At the moment they’ve taken their opportunity and they’ve got a bit of a head start on the others, but as I’ve said, the others will get their opportunities at the right time. But I thought both of them played very well last week and they’re both very good players who I have faith in.”
The Dragons, meanwhile, have summer signings Zane Kirchner and Gavin Henson at full-back and stand-off respectively. They lost 24-20 at Myreside last season, when they ended up second bottom of the league, but No 8 Harrison Keddie is confident that their new-look team will be more competitive this time round.
“It’s one of those defeats that still annoys you now when you think about it,” he said. “We were in a really promising position with 10 minutes remaining and ended up losing and not really sure what had happened. But that was last year, and we have a new set-up here now with new systems. Hopefully if we are in a position like that again it won’t be the same result and we will come away with the win.”
Edinburgh (v Dragons at Myreside, Friday 8 September, 7.35pm): B Kinghorn; D Hoyland, C Dean, R Fruean, J Harries; D Weir, S Hidalgo-Clyne; M Rizzo, S McInally, W Nel, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie, H Watson, M Bradbury. Substitutes:
R Ford, D Marfo, S Berghan, F McKenzie, C du Preez, N Fowles, J Tovey, J Rasolea.
Dragons: Z Kirchner; A Hewitt, T Morgan, S Beard, H Amos; G Henson, C Davies; B Harris, E Dee, L Brown, R Landman, C Hill, J Thomas, J Benjamin, H Keddie. Substitutes: R Buckley, P Price, L Fairbrother, M Screech, M Williams, O Leonard, A O’Brien, A Hughes.