Southern Kings v Edinburgh preview: chase for play-off place begins to heat up

Understrength visitors go into the game in Port Elizabeth in search of some vital league points

James Johnstone
James Johnstone has replaced the injured Mark Bennett in the Edinburgh team to face Ulster. Image: ©Fotosport/David Gibson.

EDINBURGH are third with a game in hand and the Kings are bottom and when the teams met just three weeks ago Richard Cockerill’s side won 38-0. So today’s PRO14 Conference B match is going to be a stroll for the Scots, right?

Let’s hope it turns out to be that simple, because after a demanding run of games in both the league and the Champions Cup, Edinburgh could do with an honest-to-goodness, straightforward win in which they pick up four or five points and go home in one piece. But there are a few factors that come into play in this one which suggest that things may not be quite so simple.

For a start, the Kings are at home. They looked anything but at home when they came to a chilly BT Murrayfield for the first fixture of the year, but they can be a different prospect at the Madibaz Stadium in Port Elizabeth with the sun on their backs and a vocal support behind them. Glasgow Warriors could testify to that, having gone down to an ignominious 38-28 defeat there back in September.

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Then there is the Edinburgh squad. Yes, they have got Chris Dean, Luke Crosbie and David Cherry released by Scotland for this afternoon’s match, but, as Cockerill pointed out, they are still without a score of players.

“We’ve got the best part of 20 players missing – nine with the national team and 11 guys injured,” the head coach said. “We’re certainly understrength compared with where we could be. The Kings are picking from strength. If you take nine internationals out of your squad that is going to leave a few holes.

“But although we are slightly understrength, we’d expect ourselves to perform. It’s an important game and we need as many points out of it as we can get. It’s going to be a tough game – the Kings have made teams work really hard for results here. As we saw against Glasgow, if you get it wrong you can certainly come unstuck.

“We’ve done our normal diligence. Nothing changes for us. We’ve got to meet the physical challenges and obviously it’s a little bit warmer than we’re used to, but we back our conditioning and fitness. We’ve just got to play our game and make sure that when they have the ball we control them as much as we can. It’s the same with any team.”

Some key members of the pack will again front up in the absence of the team’s Scotland forwards, and Pierre Schoeman and Bill Mata, in particular, can be expected to lead by example. But the back division looks a bit stretched, especially with winger Duhan van der Merwe having been given time off to attend his brother’s wedding elsewhere in South Africa. (“When you’re the best man you probably need to be there,” Cockerill conceded).

James Johnstone takes over on the left wing, while George Taylor comes in at outside centre for just his third appearance. For Taylor and those other members of the squad who have not figured much in the campaign so far, this game has to be seen as a chance to prove that Edinburgh now have far greater all-round depth than has been the case in recent seasons.

Only two points separate second and fifth in the table at the moment, and the coach believes that this stage of the season could prove vital in his team’s push for the play-off places. “We’re just going to approach every game and try to get as many points out of it as we can,” he said. “We had a tough start to the season from the fixture point of view, but teams around us are playing each other, so somebody is going to drop points this weekend. We have to make sure we keep chipping away.

“If we get it right there is potentially an opportunity to get five or six points ahead of the teams around us, teams that will be competing for those play-off spots. We still have those teams to play, especially Scarlets and Ulster. It’s going to be a tight finish and we need to make sure we collect as many points on the way as we can.”

A low-scoring, no-bonus win would be far from a disaster, and certainly, however the scoreline ends up, Edinburgh have to approach the game with a fair degree of caution. You have to build your innings, as their former coach Alan Solomons was always fond of saying, and against opponents who are at their most dangerous in broken play, patience and structure will be of paramount importance.

Edinburgh (v Southern Kings at Madibaz Stadium, Saturday 3.15pm British time, live on Premier Sports): Dougie Fife; Tom Brown, George Taylor, Chris Dean, James Johnstone; Jaco van der Walt, Henry Pyrgos; Pierre Schoeman, David Cherry, Pietro Ceccarelli, Fraser McKenzie, Callum Hunter-Hill, Luke Crosbie, Ally Miller, Bill Mata. Substitutes: Ross Ford, Darryl Marfo, Murray McCallum, Jamie Hodgson, Mungo Mason, Nathan Fowles, Simon Hickey, Juan Pablo Socino.

Southern Kings: Masixole Banda; Yaw Penxe, Harlon Klaasen, Tertius Kruger, Bjorn Basson; Ntabeni Dukisa, Stefan Ungerer; Schalk Ferreira / Alulutho Tshakweni, Michael Willemse, Luvuyo Pupuma, Andries Van Schalkwyk, John-Charles Astle (C), Cyril John Velleman, Martinus Burger, Andisa Ntsila. Substitutes: Alandre Van Rooyen, Lupumlo Mguca, Alulutho Tshakweni/ Nicolaas Oosthuizen, Stephan Greeff, Henry Brown, Sarel Pretorius, Bader Pretorius, Meli Rokoua.

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About Stuart Bathgate 1235 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.