THE consensus appears to be that the remainder of this Rainbow Cup campaign will be treated by most of the competing teams as an opportunity to give fringe and emerging players time in the saddle in order to build towards next season – when hopefully things will return to something resembling normality – but Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill does not see that as a reason to wrap the three Lions in his squad in cotton wool.
Details of the final two rounds – reduced from three – of the tournament were announced yesterday. We now know that after Saturday night’s clash between Edinburgh and Glasgow at Murrayfield, the capital side will face Ulster at home on 5th June and Scarlets away on 13th June, in matches which don’t even have the appeal of local bragging rights being at stake. Meanwhile, Warriors will play the Dragons on 29th May and Leinster at home on 4th June in their remaining games of the season. Both teams could also qualify for the Rainbow Cup Final on 19th June, but nobody seems particularly interested in that.
“Their job is to play rugby so I am not going to force anybody to do anything but that is what they signed up for,” said Cockerill, when asked how he plans to manage his Lions. “I have two guys coming back from injury [Hamish Watson has a tight groin and Rory Sutherland still has four or five weeks remaining of his return from a shoulder injury] who want game time to be sharp, and Duhan [van der Merwe] has not played a huge amount of rugby this season so needs to play now to be in his best form in order to push for a spot in the Test team.
“So, if they are fit, healthy and available to play then they are available for selection like everybody else.”
The coach added that Sutherland remains on track to be fit in time to join up with the Lions in mid-June. “He is doing very, very well. He is getting better every day. Whether he sees any rugby with us before the end of the season remains to be seen but we are hopeful that will be the case.”
“It [the Rainbow Cup] is a relatively contrived competition, isn’t it?” Cockerill continued. “It has been a very difficult year with the South Africans not being able to travel, but it’s a good competition to get players some game time and keep them sharp for the summer.
“The season is dead for us, really. But we have guys who are coming back from injury and there is a Scotland tour coming up and guys will want to put their hands up for that, notwithstanding there are three guys that need game time to keep themselves sharp for the British and Irish Lions. Those little motivations will keep us playing and at this point we are still in the competition.
“Every time we play, we want to win so we will see where it takes us. We have some guys who have long term injuries, and some guys who need surgery to get themselves right for pre-season or a summer tour, but that means there are three more games for young players like Ben Muncaster, Conor Boyle, Charlie Savala and Nathan Chamberlain to be involved in. If they are fit, available and it is the right thing to play them then they will play. Matt Currie, too, should have recovered from his shoulder injury in time to play in the Ulster game.”
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Meanwhile, Glasgow Warriors head coach Danny Wilson seems to be taking a more collaborative approach with the two Lions – tight-head prop Zander Fagerson and scrum-half Ali Price – in his squad.
“I’ve had a conversation with them both,” he explained. “They have a view on what they want to play and need to play to go into such a big thing. Some players will want more rugby because they want to stay on top of their match fitness, while some players will want less because they want to stay on top of the conditioning.
“Both players have earned the right to manage the games going forward. I won’t go into any more detail of what has been said about that, but they are heavily involved in making decisions in what they want to do going forward for the last three games.
“It is a conversation and a meeting in the middle. It is not the conversation you would have with other players. They have earned the right. We have three games which, to be brutally honest, don’t have a lot riding on them. If those games did have things riding on them then they would understand that their day job has to have priority.
“For the 1872 Cup last weekend, they both had to be selected and had to empty themselves out in it because it was a massive game for the club, and they both did that. So, I’m very sympathetic and understanding about sitting down and planning their next three games and making agreements, so that’s what we’ve done.
“The key is that they have a good understanding of what they need. Some players will say that they want to play all three games because they want to roll into it feeling as sharp and match fit as possible, others might see it differently and feel they would be better served by coming out of the firing line.”
Wilson added that Cole Forbes – the 21-year-old New Zealand-born, Scottish-qualified wing/full-back, who scored an excellently taken try during another assured performance for Warriors last Friday night – is a doubt for this weekend’s match.
“He took a bit of a bang in the Edinburgh game, so we have looked after him at the start of this week to see how it unfolds, but he is definitely one for the future,” he said.