THERE are several ways in which Edinburgh can still qualify for the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup even if they lose to Stade Francais this evening. A victory next Saturday in Paris, for example, would be enough to take them through as Pool 4 winners. A defeat with a bonus point or two might also suffice. And, indeed, two losing bonus points tonight would also guarantee qualification, provided the holders themselves fail to get one.
But why take a circuitous route to the knockout stages when there is a more straightforward way to get there – simply by recording any sort of win tonight? That, at least, is Richard Cockerill’s thinking. The head coach is not concerned with permutations that involve losing: he wants his team to claim a home draw in the quarter-finals at the first time of asking, and he is confident that he has selected a side that can get the job done.
Admittedly, injuries have reduced Edinburgh to the bare bones up front, and if they lose another prop to injury tonight, the return match will have to have uncontested scrums, according to Cockerill, after the tournament organisers refused his request for an emergency registration of one of his new signings. But they are buoyed, nonetheless, by the return of Rory Sutherland at loosehead, while Murray McCallum has impressed recently at tighthead. Matt Shields has deputised well, and although replacement tighthead Kevin Bryce has had no professional rugby this season, the pack as a whole has performed with increasing confidence.
“We’re looking to win so we get a home quarter-final – it’s as simple as that,” Cockerill said after naming a team with five changes from the one that started last week’s PRO14 win over the Southern Kings. “Historically, this side has done well in this tournament, and this is an opportunity for us to build on what has been an OK season for us so far.
“Obviously, there are some guys missing, especially in the front row. We only have four front-row players registered, so they’re either playing or on the bench. Jordan Lay couldn’t play because he’s not registered, and it’s the same with Elliot Millar-Mills.
“We are a little bit short there.We asked to bring Jordan Lay in as an extra player because of extreme circumstances, but that’s not part of the regulations. We just have to get on with it. The rules are the rules.
“It is a strong side, and a side that I think is good enough to win. It’s a good side, good bench: we just have to go out there and play as well as we can. We are good enough to beat them, but if we let them impose their game on us then they’re good enough to win as well.”
Besides the return of Sutherland, the other changes see Damien Hoyland, Chris Dean and Bill Mata promoted from last week’s bench, and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne brought back after a brief paternity leave. Darcy Graham and Junior Rasolea are among the six changes to the substitutes.
Stade Francais, meanwhile, have named a squad which, although short of what would be regarded as their absolutely first-choice line-up, still includes players of the calibre of full-back Tony Ensor, centre Jonathan Danty, winger Julien Arias and stand-off Jules Plisson. “It’s a pretty good side, to be fair,” was Cockerills verdict. “It’s not quite full strength, but pretty much. Guys like Danty and Ensor are very good players, Arias is very experienced, and the half-backs have a lot of experience. It’s a very big, combative forward pack.
“They’re one of the powerhouses of European rugby and have been for a long time. Domestically, they’ve not performed as well as they would have liked this year, but they can still qualify for the quarter-finals with two wins.
“We have the opportunity this weekend to qualify and we want to try and take it. But we won’t be taking them lightly. They’ve picked a good squad and maybe they’re looking at this as a chance to kick-start their season.”
As Edinburgh hope to soldier on in Europe with the props who are available to them, one piece of good news is that Darryl Marfo will not need surgery on the disc in his back that has sidelined him. The loosehead saw a specialist earlier this week and was told to carry on with his rehabilitation programme, and although no date has been set for him to resume training with the squad, Cockerill hopes that the avoidance of surgical intervention will mean a quicker return for the Scotland international.
Edinburgh (v Stade Francais at BT Murrayfield, tonight [Friday], kick-off 7.35pm): B Kinghorn; D Hoyland, M Bennett, C Dean, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, S Hidalgo-Clyne; R Sutherland, S McInally, M McCallum, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, H Watson, V Mata. Substitutes: N Cochrane, M Shields, K Bryce, F McKenzie, J Ritchie, N Fowles, D Graham, J Rasolea.
Stade Français: T Ensor; R Martial, W Vuidravuwalu, J Danty, J Arias; J Plisson, C McLeod; H van der Merwe, L Panis, P Alo-Emile, P Gabrillagues, A Flanquart, M de Giovanni, M Ugena, S Macalou. Substitutes: C Burden, Z Zhvania, G Melikidze, S Cerqueira, B Meïte, C Daguin, S Geraghty, J Yobo.