FRESH from scoring one of the tries of the season so far for Scotland Sevens, Darcy Graham will make his competitive debut for Edinburgh tonight when they take on London Irish in the Challenge Cup. The former Hawick player has been named on the left wing for the Pool 4 game, victory in which would take Richard Cockerill’s side significantly closer to a place in the quarter-finals.
Graham has already played for Edinburgh in a pre-season friendly, and would have been involved in the campaign before now but for injury. Cockerill knows he has one of the brightest young talents in the country on his hands, and has been impressed by the 20-year-old’s willingness to work and learn as well as by his abundant natural ability.
“He’s got a fantastic attitude,” the head coach said. “Very tenacious, very quick, very brave. I just love his attitude. He’s a very talented player with a perfect attitude for this team and I’m glad we’re able to give him his debut this weekend.
“The plan was always to bring him back in when he was fit, and I thought [the trip to] South Africa was probably a little bit too early. Darcy was always going to play this game, or these couple of games probably, regardless of sevens. Sevens was just a good opportunity to get some game fitness into him.
“He’s not very big, and that’s the first thing he said to me – that he felt he wasn’t big enough – and I said, ‘Well you’re quite good.’ So if he’s good he can play. He’s not scared of the contact part, very good under the high ball, very brave in the air – he has no awareness of his own health when he goes up for balls in the air – and he doesn’t back away from any contest.
“Even if he’s playing against big men he will tackle hard and he will put everything into his game. So there’s a lot to like about him – and he can finish, as we saw last weekend. He’s a good Scottish young player who’s come through the system, there’s a lot to like about him, so he’s getting the opportunity to prove himself and if he plays better than the others he can play no problem.
“There’s a lot of big, powerful men about, but I think Darcy’s skill set and pace and attitude [mean] there’s a place for him. Because he’s got such pace and tenacity and he’ll get better the more he plays, so I think there’s a big future for him.”
Tighthead prop Matt Shields, signed this week from Rotherham, will also make his debut if he comes off the bench to replace Murray McCallum. Cockerill will also have Simon Berghan to call on in the coming weeks, but he confirmed that he expected Willem Nel, who was injured while playing for Scotland against Samoa last month, to be out until after the start of the Six Nations Championship.
“Well he’s broken his arm, so you’re probably looking at 12 weeks you would have thought, and then we’ll assess it from there,” the coach said. Twelve weeks from the date of the injury would see Nel resume active training in early February, with the earliest plausible return to the Test arena being the home Calcutta Cup clash on the 24th. The 31-year-old Nel is by some distance Scotland’s most experienced tighthead, but the fact Scotland did so well against Australia and New Zealand in his absence, with Berghan sharing the No 3 duties with Glasgow’s Zander Fagerson, will soften the blow of his absence.
Having beaten London Irish and Krasny Yar away already, Edinburgh are top of a pool which also includes Stade Francais. If they win on Saturday then defeat the Russians next week, they will then go into the January double-header against the French club knowing that one more win will almost certainly give them a place in the last eight.
London Irish give debuts to hooker Saia Fainga’a, who has 36 caps for Australia, and to Fijian international tighthead Manasa Saulo, who has 35 caps. A formidable-looking front row is completed by Gordon Reid, the former Glasgow Warriors loosehead. Reid’s fellow-Scotland international Greig Tonks is at full-back, former Scotland under-20 cap Scott Steele is at scrum-half, and the substitutes include former Edinburgh captain Mike Coman.
Irish were below full strength when they lost to Edinburgh in Reading back in October, and, while this line-up looks stronger on paper, Cockerill pointed out that some of their most experienced players are returning from injury so will be short of match fitness.
“It’s hard to tell, really,” the coach said when asked if he thought his opponents are stronger now than they were two months ago. “I’m not overly sure. It’s certainly a mixed team and they’re rotating a fair bit.
“After the two European games they go to Worcester in the Premiership, which is obviously a very important game for them. I think they’ve put out a slightly stronger side on paper, that when we went away from home, but obviously guys like Gordon Reid, Fainga’a, Saulo haven’t played much this year.
“So I’m sure they’re trying to get game time into their players. I think their priority will be the Premiership for obvious reasons and survival there, but we’ve got a job to do. They’ll bring who they bring, they’ll play as hard as they can, but we need to make sure we get it right. We’ve been on good form, we’ve played some good rugby and we need to make sure we continue that.”
Cockerill’s stated priority this season is to achieve greater consistency in the PRO14, but he is aware of Edinburgh’s tradition of raising their game in European competition, and does not believe that success in the Challenge Cup need come at the expense of progress in the league. “We want to try to win every time we play. This competition, some take it more seriously than others.
“We’ve rotated and mixed the squad up for this week and we will for next week. We’re just going to keep trying to win every game we play. Europe’s been good to this squad historically and we want to continue that. At some point we want to try to be competitive and win silverware. We’ll try to do that on both fronts if we can.”
Edinburgh (v London Irish at Myreside, Saturday 7.35pm): B Kinghorn; D Hoyland, C Dean, P Burleigh, D Graham; J van der Walt, S Hidalgo-Clyne; D Marfo, S McInally, M McCallum, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, H Watson, V Mata. Substitutes: N Cochrane, R Sutherland, M Shields, L Carmichael, J Ritchie, S Kennedy, D Fife, J Rasolea.
London Irish: G Tonks, B Ransom, T Fowlie, J Williams, B Loader, T Bell, S Steele; G Reid, S Fainga’a, M Saulo, W Lloyd, S de Chaves, J Cooke, M Northcote-Green, L Lomidze. Substitutes: T Woolstencroft, H Elrington, L Chawatama, J Basham, M Coman, B Meehan, T Brophy Clews, M Williams.