JOHN Hardie is back training with the Edinburgh squad after an absence of nearly two months, but now faces a race against time if he is to win a place in the Scotland squad for the start of the Six Nations. Under the terms of the three-month suspension imposed on him by Edinburgh for gross misconduct, the openside flanker has been allowed to return to training from New Year’s Day but is banned from playing in matches until the 19th. His team only have one game between that date – on the following day against Stade Francais in Paris – and the national side’s first outing of the Championship against Wales in Cardiff on 3rd February.
Even if Hardie is chosen for the match in the French capital, one appearance may not be enough to convince Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend that he should give the 29-year-old a recall. For the time being, however, the Edinburgh camp are simply glad to have the player back with them, according to assistant coach Duncan Hodge.
“He’s been back the last two days,” Hodge said yesterday. “Personally it’s great to see him back training. He’s not been with us the last month, so it’s good to have him back, albeit he can’t be selected until the 19th. From his point of view it’s great to have him back training and get him fit.”
Hardie went back home to New Zealand for some time last month, but according to Hodge he has looked after himself well during the lay-off. “He certainly looks all right at training,” the coach added. “Not like you or I if we had a month off.”
Hardie, who has 16 caps, cannot play in Edinburgh’s next two games, against the Southern Kings this Friday then Stade Francais a week later, both at Myreside. The last weekend in January is a fallow one for the pro teams, meaning his only other chance to prove his match fitness before the Wales game would be to make a club appearance in the BT Premiership on 27 January. Whether that would be enough to convince Townsend he should be selected remains to be seen, especially as competition in the back row has increased considerably over the last year.
Although Hardie will not be seen in action for another fortnight, Mark Bennett could make his long-awaited Edinburgh debut against the Kings, having been out of action since being injured in last season’s Calcutta Cup clash, when he was still a Glasgow player. Bennett’s fellow-centre James Johnstone should also be able to play on Friday after recovering from the shoulder knock he sustained in Saturday’s 17-0 defeat by Glasgow. Loosehead prop Rory Sutherland, however, is touch and go according to Hodge.
Given that the Kings have lost all 10 of their PRO14 matches to date, and have not played since losing 48-21 to Edinburgh at home on the 1st of December, this match should be a straightforward one for Richard Cockerill’s side as they try to close in on the play-off spots in Conference B. However, Hodge, while believing the month’s break will work against the Kings, insisted there was no room for complacency.
“We know them very well,” he said. “We were their last game; they haven’t played since then. That’s quite a good thing.
“But they’ve got a very quick back three, and any mistakes you make can be latched upon. So our kicking game and how we control the ball is really important against them.”
Edinburgh No 8 Cornell du Preez, who used to play for the Kings, agreed that they should not be taken lightly despite their poor league record. “They’ve been struggling this season because they lost a lot of players to Super Rugby and they’re coming to new places to play,” he said. “I think they’re just trying to build a team and get used to things, but they are still tough to play against.
“I’m not sure if they were off or training, but maybe it was a good thing for them to get a bit of time off from the long year they’ve had. I look forward to seeing how they cope with the cold when they come here. It’s probably 28-30 degrees every day over there.”
Having lost ground on the top three in their conference as a result of the loss to Glasgow and Ulster’s win over Munster on Monday, Edinburgh need to win well on Friday, after which they have the chance to secure a Challenge Cup quarter-final – possibly a home quarter-final at that – in those two games against Stade Francais. In other words, the business end of the season is approaching – although as ever Hodge is reluctant to look too far ahead.
“We’ve got another three weeks in a block before a couple of weeks without games,” he added. “This weekend at home we’ve got to get back on league form, then we’ve got two massive games in Europe – and then I suppose from there we reassess.
“Little things like Ulster last night getting a bonus point – that doesn’t help us. That’s our first aim, I suppose, to try and catch the people above us and get into those play-off spots. We play them in a few weeks, but that’s six or seven weeks down the track.
“We are progressing and we’ve done a lot of good things. Saturday was a bit of a blip. There was lots of good in there. This week it’s probably more of a mental challenge – we’ve just got to get back on the horse. It’s not easy conditions out there, potentially on Friday night it’s going to be the same. We’ve just got to go out and win on Friday night; that’s our main objective just now.”