Image courtesy of Scottish Rugby/SNS Group
IT is crunch time as far as Edinburgh’s quest to qualify for the Champions Cup next season is concerned. They are currently sixth in the Pro 12 table, which is where they need to be in order to make it into European rugby’s flagship competition, but seventh placed Munster have the same number of league points and Cardiff are just one point behind – meaning that everything hinges on the last two games of the season.
Edinburgh play Munster in Cork tonight and then Cardiff Blues at home in their last match of the campaign. Anything less than two wins would leave them long-odds outsiders in the battle for sixth place.
Head coach Alan Solomons has never been one for squad rotation and the make-up of his team for tonight’s match brought few surprises. Sean Kennedy has got the nod at scrum-half, with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne ready to make an impact off the bench. Phil Burleigh and Michael Allan are out for the remainder of the campaign with ankle and shoulder injuries respectively, but this is compensated for by the return to action of Matt Scott after eight weeks recovering from an elbow injury. He will line up at outside centre alongside the experienced Andries Strauss.
Making it into the Champions Cup from this position will be a huge achievement for the men from the Scottish capital, but the big concern for all supporters of the game north of the border should really be about how well equipped they will be for the challenge of being genuinely competitive against the continent’s top teams if they do make the cut.
From the squad that started this season, Edinburgh have already lost David Denton to Bath, Greig Tonks to London Irish, and Roddy Grant to retirement. On top of this, Scott will move to Gloucester during the summer, while club captain Mike Coman is following Tonks to London Irish.
Those are five highly influential characters, and there is not a lot of experience coming in to replace them.
Duncan Weir will bring international pedigree when he arrives from Glasgow Warriors, and fellow stand-off Jason Tovey may well be given a longer terms contract after his current loan deal expires at the end of May.
“I’ve been very happy with Jason. He has fitted in beautifully and he forms part of what we want to do going forward. It’s all under discussion at the moment so I would rather leave it there,” said Solomons.
However, Edinburgh’s other new signings so far are much more about potential than current capacity to compete consistently against the top sides in Europe.
Full-back Glenn Bryce is a classy player but the 24-year-old has started only six professional games for Edinburgh. With his brother, Kevin, three is the key number – he is three years older than his sibling and has been capped three times by Scotland off the bench, but he has started only three matches for Glasgow Warriors during his three seasons at the club (with nine more appearances off the bench) and will be making the switch from hooker to tight-head prop (jersey number three) at the start of next season.
“He is a rugged, abrasive player who has been playing in the front-row and I anticipate he will make that transition pretty quickly, by the start of next season,” stressed Solomons.
Lewis Carmichael is 20-years-old and this will be his first season as a full-time professional; while former Fijian age-grade international centre Solomoni ‘Junior’ Rasolea (signed from Western Force) and Irish winger Rory Scholes (signed from Ulster) appear capable of making an immediate impact.
Solomons spoke at Thursday’s press briefing about how pleased he is that injuries and international commitments this season have forced him to give more game time to some of his younger players than he planned to, but it was hard to escape the impression that he was doing his level best to make a virtue out of a necessity.
“Blair [Kinghorn] is having his sixteenth game for us, Chris Dean has had a lot or rugby, Damian Hoyland has had a lot of rugby, too, Jamie Ritchie had been starting regularly and Magnus Bradbury has been coming off the bench – that means that next year five players have got so much more experience and that makes a massive difference,” said the coach.
“If you look at our squad at the moment, we’re not far off completing our contracting process. Our young Scottish players have come through and we’ve brought in others that are ambitious. Our age profile has changed considerably over the past two years. I think we’re now getting the balance right. You need youth and experience like a blended wine – but don’t underestimate youth. Plus it provides for continuity moving forward,” he added.
It is possible that extra cash will be made available if Edinburgh do make it, but by that point they will be so late to the party that all the most eligible bachelors will have already hooked up with other clubs.
Edinburgh claim that they have signed 25 players for next season but this is misleading. Nineteen of these players were already at the club and have signed new contracts. Retaining the services of the likes of Grant Gilchrist, Cornell di Preez, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford, Stuart McInally is to be welcomed, that is not going to be enough by itself for the club to start closing the gap from being also rans to genuine challengers.
Given how little game time Edinburgh have got from the likes of Gilchrist, Nasi Manu and Fraser McKenzie this season, a return to regular action by them next term would feel a bit like bringing three big-hitting new signings. Edinburgh fans can only hope that this is enough.
Meanwhile, Rob Harley leads Glasgow Warriors in what should be a routine bonus try victory against struggling Zebre at Scotstoun, as the push continues for a home draw in the play-off semi-final. Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray and Josh Strauss are all rested, while tight-head prop D’Arcy Rae makes his first appearance at Scotstoun in his seventh appearance for the club.
THE LOWDOWN –
- MUNSTER v EDINBURGH
VENUE: Irish Independent Park – Cork
KICK-OFF TIME: 7.35pm on Friday 29th April
Munster: S Zebo; A Conway, F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; D Foley, B Holland; D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, C Stander. Subs: M Sherry, J Cronin, J Ryan, R Copeland, J O’Donoghue, D Williams, I Keatley, R O’Mahony.
Edinburgh: B Kinghorn; D Hoyland, M Scott, A Strauss, T Brown; J Tovey, S Kennedy; A Dickinson, R Ford, W Nel, A Bresler, B Toolis, J Ritchie, J Hardie, C du Preez. Subs: S McInally, R Sutherland, J Andress, A Toolis, M Bradbury, S Hidalgo-Clyne, C Dean, D Fife.
KEY BATTLE: CJ Stander versus Jamie Ritchie
VERDICT: Munster are at home and have too much to lose to let this one slip by.
- GLASGOW WARRIORS v ZEBRE
KICK-OFF TIME: 7.35pm on Friday 29th April
Glasgow Warriors: G Bryce; T Naiyaravoro, M Bennett, A Dunbar, S Lamont; D Weir, G Hart; J Yanuyanutawa, P MacArthur, D Rae, G Peterson, L Nakarawa, R Harley, S Favaro, A Ashe. Subs: F Brown, G Reid, Z Fagerson, T Swinson, R Wilson, A Price, F Russell, T Seymour.
Zebre: U Beyers; G Toniolatti, T Boni, G Garcia, K Van Zyl; C Canna, L Burgess; A De Marchi, O Fabiani, D Christolini, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami, E Caffini, F Cristiano, F Ruzza. Subs: B Postiglioni, E Coria, P Ceccarelli, G Koegelenberg, D van Schalkwyk, G Palazanni, G Bisegni, K Haimona.
KEY BATTLE: Alex Dunbar versus Gonzalo Garcia
VERDICT: Anything less than a bonus point victory for Warriors will be a disappointment.