GRANT GILCHRIST insists that the only thing on his mind going into Edinburgh’s clash against Zebre on Saturday afternoon was helping his team get a valuable victory on the road which would keep them in the hunt for European qualification at the end of this season.
However, with that goal achieved, he was prepared to concede on Saturday night that the game also served an important purpose on a personal level by allowing him to get another 80 minutes under his belt, which will stand him in good stead as he looks to push his case for a recall to the Scotland team ahead of their Six Nations opener against England at Twickenham on 6th February.
The second-row missed out on the Autumn Test schedule after picking up a groin injury the week before Scotland’s first match, which required surgery and kept him side-lined for three months in total.
Now, with back-to-back 80 minutes against Glasgow and Zebre under his belt since his return to action, he feels like he is in the right sort of shape to state his case to the Scotland coaching team during the next fortnight as part of the 35-man training squad which went into camp earlier this [Sunday] evening.
Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray are firmly established at the moment as first picks in the national team’s engine-room, while the vastly experienced Richie Gray has earned widespread praise since his return in recent weeks from a long-running concussion, and Alex Craig’s form for Gloucester has earned him a chance to stake a claim for a first cap – so Gilchrist knows he faces plenty of competition.
“The timing with my injury was literally the week before the opportunity to play in the games in the autumn, so I’m going to head into camp looking to put my best foot forward,” he said. “I’m experienced enough to know there’s a lot of quality there and I might have to be patient before I force my way into the team. But I’m certainly going to work as hard as I can to work my way in there.”
“I had no question in my mind that I needed to play in the last two games and get some good game time under my belt, just to get that feeling of being back out there,” he added, speaking straight after Saturday’s 10-26 win over Zebre at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
“I think no matter how many games I play, the last 10 minutes is always tough – so I can’t say any nonsense to the contrary – but this was exactly what I needed. It was a tough game physically and it was key that we controlled that last period when our set-piece held up very well.
“It was just crucial that we bounced back from the disappointment of losing to Glasgow the previous week. Those weren’t the standards that we wanted to set, so we’re happier with our performance this week.”
Edinburgh’s victory was all the more pleasing because the team had to overcome some serious adversity over the course of the weekend. First, head coach Richard Cockerill and full-back Blair Kinghorn couldn’t travel to Italy with the squad after the results of their pre-fight Covid tests were delayed. Then they had to play the final 20 minutes with 14 men – and briefly 13 men – following a yellow-card for prop WP Nel for repeated infringements in his own 22 and a red-card for centre George Taylor for a dangerous tackle.
“We knew we had to go there and win, so we’re really pleased with how we stuck in to do that,” said Gilchrist. “In that last 20 minutes, we were able to still control the game and the result, which was really pleasing.
“That’s a result and a performance that puts us back in the mix for Europe which is the key goal for us this year.”
While Gilchrist is one of 11 Edinburgh players who will now spend most of the next two months away on Scotland duty, those left behind are looking forward to a down week before an informal ‘hit-out’ against Glasgow Warriors the following week will give the fringe and emerging players in both squads a chance to get some valuable match minutes under their belt.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Gilchrist. “There are a lot of guys for whom no Super6. has had a big impact. They’ve been limited in what they can do. But these games will be good for the younger guys to get experience, the ones who’ve been training very well with us but who are desperate to get some gametime.
“It’s a perfect opportunity for these guys to play. We’ve got about 50 guys who train with us but only 23 get to play on the weekend. So these [bounce] games are going to be crucial. These guys are chomping at the bit to play. And now they’re going to get their opportunity.”