EDINBURGH head coach Richard Cockerill has backed inexperienced half-back partnership of Nathan Chamberlain and Charlie Shiel to take tomorrow [Friday] evening’s clash against Glasgow Warriors at Murrayfield in their stride.
Chamberlain is making his first start in top-flight pro rugby, and his only previous experience at this level was three minutes at the end of last weekend’s game between the same two sides, with the match already over as a contest by the time he took the field.
The stand-off was a star of the Scotland Under-20s team during the 2020 Six Nations, finishing the campaign with a real flourish when he pulled the strings, scored three tries and kicked a flawless 17 points in the team’s 17-52 victory over Wales.
At that time, he was a member of the Bristol Bears Academy and playing most of his rugby for Hartpury College. He moved to Edinburgh during the summer on a two year deal, with the first season as an academy player (expected to play predominantly in Super6) before becoming a full-time squad member in 2021-22.
However, when Jono Lance’s visa application fell through it left Chamberlain as the next cab off the rank behind Jaco van der Walt at No 10.
“If you are going to play him in a game that has no consequence, effectively, this is the game, isn’t it?” said Cockerill. “We need to see where he is at in his development, and if he comes through, which I’m sure he will because there are some really good bits about his game, it will be a really good experience for him against one of the international 10s for Scotland.
“He’s mentally very good,” the coach continued. “His last game was against Wales when he scored a hat-trick for the Under-20s and kicked every goal. He’s a confident young man, he’s still a bit quiet because he’s learning what it is all about, but he’s got a good kicking game and it is just about whether he can think and react quickly enough in the heat of battle.
“I’m sure Glasgow are going to put us under enough pressure to see with how he copes, and there will be parts he copes with really well and parts that aren’t so good – but that’s young guys learning the game. I think it is the perfect game for him to come in to and we can see what he’s made of.
“I spoke to Nathan during the week. We’ve all had our first game where we’re anxious, nervous, and not sure how it’s going to go, so if he kills it tomorrow night and he’s man-of-the-match it’s not all fixed, and if he has a few shaky moments and makes some mistakes it’s okay too because that’s how you learn.
“We’ve all got better experience from things going badly, haven’t we? It might not be nice at the time but that’s how you learn.”
Shiel is slightly more experienced. He scored the match winning try when Scotland defeated Australia to claim a best ever fifth place finish at the 2017 Junior World Cup and has been on the books at Edinburgh since the summer of 2018, during which time he has made 16 appearances but only two starts.
He came off the bench for the final quarter of last weekend’s game and raised the tempo, topping off a fine personal effort with an excellent solo try. Cockerill has never been in doubt about Shiel’s attacking threat but has challenged the 22-year-old to prove that he can also provide control when required.
“Charlie’s natural instinct to play is first-class and his kicking game has improved out of sight in the last 12 months, now it’s just his decision making on when to play and when not to play, and making sure that he guides the team around the field,” said Cockerill.
“He touches the ball more than any other player in the team so he’s got to make good decisions all of the time. When you play knockout rugby, you have to make the right decisions as often as possible, and we’re playing this game as if it’s knockout rugby – we’re playing to win, so we’ve got to do all our basics right.
“Charlie needs to show that as well as coming on and giving us a 20-minute cameo of all the nice bits, can he deliver under pressure, can he remember the calls. He shows that in parts but he’s still got to carry on developing.”
Chamberlain and Shiel will be helped through the match by several senior players who Cockerill has decided to give game time to despite the obvious temptation to wrap as many front-liners in cotton-wool ahead of the following weekend’s PRO14 play-off clash against Ulster.
“Everyone wanted to play because they feel the game time will do them good, and I wanted to put a side out that was competitive, rather than putting out a completely different 15 with young and inexperienced guys there, which would mean you are sending out a team to potentially get beaten quite heavily,” said Cockerill.
“It is a good side capable of potentially winning the match, and there are risks [with injury] that you have to take. Leinster, Munster and UIster will be taking the same risks. We can manage some guys in-game but it is important that they get some game time.”
The team will be captained from inside centre by Chris Dean, one of the unheralded stalwarts of the squad.
“He understands the game well and he’s got a good manner about him and he knows how we want to play,” explained Cockerill. “He’s been with us from the start of this project and he talks sense and he’s a very mature player, so it will be good to see how Chris manages that as skipper.”
The other notable selection is in the middle-row, where Nick Haining – ordinarily a No 8 – will pack down alongside Jamie Hodgson.
“We may share that workload in the second-row around the scrummaging parts because Magnus Bradbury and Viliame Mata have both played in the row [before],” said Cockerill.
“Nick is a good man, works really hard, and he’s 6ft 6ins and 115kgs, so he’s as big as our locks. It is not the perfect scenario for us, especially as Richie Gray and Scott Cummings are a really good second-row pairing, so I imagine we’ll have our work cut-out – but we have a strategy going into the game and I’d imagine it will be a really good experience for Jamie Hodgson, and for Marshall Sykes when he takes the field as a Glasgow academy player whomever here during the summer an is now making his debut against his old club. So, I am looking forward to seeing how he manages that.”
Grant Gilchrist has been rested, while Ben Toolis, Andrew Davidson, Lewis Carmichael and Fraser McKenzie are all injured, although Cockerill hopes to have the first three of those players back in the mix next week.
Tom Gordon is a ‘game animal’
Meanwhile, Danny Wilson has challenged Tom Gordon to build on his promising performance off the bench last weekend and make the Warriors No 7 jersey his own.
“What I’m learning about Tom is that he’s a game animal,” said the coach. “He’s quite a laidback character but he is a game animal and we saw on the weekend. I’m learning about him as we go and I’m keen to see him start.
“He’s got work-ons but he has some real strengths, he’s an exciting player for the future. He sat behind Callum Gibbins the majority of last season and there is an opportunity for him now but I want him to know that he’s got to grab that opportunity.
“He did that in part last week and I think he’ll do it again this week. Going against Hamish Watson, a very experienced campaigner and so good on the floor, I’ve obviously worked with Hamish and know what a quality player he is. It would be a big test for Tom but one he’s more than capable of matching and we’ve got an exciting 7 to develop for the future.”