JOHN Hardie is free to play for Edinburgh this weekend after his three-month suspension, but the openside’s availability is no guarantee that he will be selected, according to Richard Cockerill. The head coach has been pleased with the Scotland international’s attitude since being allowed to resume training at the start of the year, but, while not entirely ruling out a return in the Challenge Cup match against Stade Francais on Saturday, suggested yesterday that it might send the wrong message to other members of the squad if Hardie were drafted straight back into the team.
Presuming there is no alteration in that attitude, the 29-year-old could find himself playing club rugby at the weekend while his Edinburgh team-mates prepare for their last pool game in Europe. Hardie is attached to Hawick, who have fought their way clear of the BT Premiership relegation zone in recent weeks but have a difficult match at Watsonians, who are now in the play-off places thanks to their convincing victory over city rivals Heriot’s last Saturday.
“John has been training well,” Cockerill said. “I would think it unlikely that he will be involved this weekend, because he hasn’t played for 12, 13, 14 weeks. We’ll see what happens. He may play club rugby this weekend and get some time under his belt; we haven’t decided on that one yet.
“I could have brought him straight back. He could do it. But I could bring Luke Crosbie straight back as well, and he hasn’t been suspended for three months. You have to reward the guys who have been here doing their jobs. I’ll pick what I think is the best back row and John Hardie has to work his way back in.
“John has no more right to play in the side than Luke Crosbie or Lewis Carmichael, [Magnus] Bradbury, [Viliame] Mata or anyone. John is a good player and he’ll come back into the team when it’s right. But for this squad to have a sound work ethic guys have to work themselves back in. For the moment, John will sit in and around fifth/sixth choice because of the situation that has been well documented.”
Hardie was suspended in October, and after a club hearing found him guilty of gross conduct he was sidelined for the three-month period. If he is not involved this weekend, his next chance to play for Edinburgh will be on 9 February when they meet Leinster in the PRO14.
Cockerill’s team are already guaranteed a home quarter-final in the Challenge Cup thanks to their dramatic 34-33 win over Stade Francais at Murrayfield last Friday, but the coach has no intention of treating the return game lightly. Stade, the holders, could still qualify for the last eight as one of the three best runners-up from the five pools, and as the game is the last fixture of the pool stages, they will know precisely what they need to do to go through to the knockout stages.
“We’ll pick a good team,” Cockerill said. “We’ll look after our squad, but it will be a good team. We’ll pick a good team and go there to try to win.
“It’s another experience for us to get right. We’ve had a big win and we need to try and back that up. If Stade win with a bonus, they’ll put themselves in a position to qualify. It will be a good test for us.
“I thought it was very physical last weekend. A lot of our players haven’t experienced that at club level, playing at that intensity.”
Edinburgh’s record of five wins in five Challenge Cup games is the exact opposite of how Glasgow have fared in the Champions Cup, but Cockerill, while naturally pleased by his team’s performances in the subsidiary competition, is not reading too much into that contrast. “Yeah, we’ve been pretty consistent, which is where we’ve been trying to get to,” he added. “I think it’s really hard to compare, because the calibre of opposition that Glasgow are playing [compared] to ourselves is very, very different. Stade probably are getting there, because they’re a very well put-together squad, and if they turn up and decide that they want to play, they can certainly beat anybody.
“But I think it’s a little bit hard to compare the fixtures that we’ve been having to Glasgow’s. We’re not even in the same competition as those big boys. That’s our aim: to get there and experience those things and develop over time.
“But I thought probably Stade was more of a game that you’d expect in a Champions Cup pool, where it’s very physical, very close, and it’s the tightest of margins.”