A QUARTET of players who were at the Scotland training camp this week have been released to play for Edinburgh against Zebre tonight (Friday), but a far greater number have not been made available for the PRO14 cross-conference game in Parma. As a result, only five players remain in Richard Cockerill’s starting line-up from the one that took to the field against Toulon a week ago, meaning the depth of the depth of the head coach’s squad will be put to a demanding test.
The positive news is that Ross Ford, Simon Berghan, Henry Pyrgos and Dougie Fife have all been released by the national squad, while Pierre Schoeman and Duhan van der Merwe are available after suspension and injury respectively. Darcy Graham and Luke Crosbie, both invited to train with the national squad in St Andrews as opposed to officially being members of it, are also able to play against the Italians.
But forwards Stuart McInally, Allan Dell, Willem Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis, Murray McCallum, Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie are all unavailable, as are Blair Kinghorn and Matt Scott in the back division. That contrasts with a Zebre side that includes 10 Italian internationals – most of whom, according to the Edinburgh coach, will play for their country against Ireland next week in the USA.
“We’ve double figures of players missing,” Cockerill said after naming his team. “They’ve got seven or eight of the 23 that will play for Italy next week in their squad. They’ve put a strong side out. They’ve got to play on Friday and get to Chicago by next Saturday, which is an interesting call.
“It very much evens it up if they’ve got a lot of their first-choice players available to play. I think we’ve still got a very good side available. This is the first time we’ve been together – we travelled yesterday because it takes us a day to get here because of the budgets that we have to get to places.”
With Toolis and Gilchrist not released, and Fraser McKenzie and Lewis Carmichael both on the injured list, Cockerill is really short of experience in the second row. Watsonians vice-captain Jamie Hodgson will make his debut alongside Callum Hunter-Hill, who has two appearances, while replacement lock Callum Atkinson, from Boroughmuir, will also be playing for Edinburgh for the first time should he come off the bench.
“Our locks have played 40 minutes between them in the PRO14,” Cockerill added. “We’ve got to see where we’re at and how some of our players cope with this. But they’re young Scottish-qualified guys who will hopefully step up to the mark.
“I’m happy to have anyone back, really. Some of those guys will go back and sit on the bench for Scotland next week, you would think. Obviously in certain positions like second row it leaves us short, and McKenzie and Carmichael being injured is just bad luck. We’ve got what we’ve got and we’re happy with that. We’re looking forward to seeing how we go.
“All our Scotland guys want to play for Scotland. We’re creating an environment where they can get better, and we’ve played pretty well for the past 15/16 months. It’s a feather in our cap that so many guys are away on Test duty, but obviously we still have games to play. It doesn’t help that Italy have released the majority of their guys, but that’s life.”
Zebre are second bottom of Conference A, but they have won two out of their three home games so far and go into this game on the back of an impressive win against Bristol in the Challenge Cup last week. They only lost to Edinburgh by a point when the teams last met – at Myreside just over a year ago – and have won three of the five meetings between the teams in Italy.
Edinburgh (v Zebre at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Friday, kick-off 7pm BST, live on Free Sports): D Fife; D Graham, J Johnstone, C Dean, D van der Merwe; S Hickey, H Pyrgos; P Schoeman, R Ford, S Berghan, J Hodgson, C Hunter-Hill, L Hamilton, L Crosbie, V Mata. Subs: D Cherry, R Sutherland, P Ceccarelli, C Atkinson, M Mason, S Kennedy, J Baggott, J Socino.
Zebre: F Brummer; M Bellini, G Bisegni, T Castello, G di Giulio; C Canna, G Palazanni; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, D Chistolini, D Sisi, G Biagi, J Bianchi, J Meyer, R Giammarioli. Subs: L Luus, D Rimpelli, G Zilocchi, L Krumov, A Tauyavuca, R Raffaele, T Boni, P Balekana.
Referee: A Brace (Ireland).