THE phoney war is over, the real battles are about to begin, and for Edinburgh it could hardly get more real than a visit to the Ospreys. The Welsh province were fifth in PRO14 Conference A last season, but a quick glance at the side they are putting out for this game is enough to dispel any notion that they will again be also-rans.
George North and Scott Williams line up alongside each other in the backs, for example, while in the pack, Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric are part of a formidable back five. Factor in home advantage at a ground where Edinburgh have a poor record, and it becomes clear that this is an extremely demanding opening for Richard Cockerill’s side.
But of course, the Edinburgh squad that the head coach has assembled for this season has changed beyond recognition from the one a few years ago that would often look beaten before it even took the field at some away venues. This one not only travels far more hopefully than its predecessor, it takes with it serious determination and an ever more solid self-belief.
Bigger, faster, stronger
And, before we become too intimidated by some of the big names in the Ospreys starting line-up, we would do well to acknowledge the depth of ability in the Edinburgh 15 – not just in the pack, its traditional strength, but also in the back division. Full-back Blair Kinghorn matured rapidly last season, and, still only 21, is already among the most dangerous strike runners in the league. Mark Bennett and the newly returned Matt Scott promise to forge a productive partnership at centre. And at half-back, New Zealander Simon Hickey and former Glasgow scrum-half Henry Pyrgos both have the kind of game-management knowledge that the team has too often sadly lacked.
This, then, is an Edinburgh squad who should at least be competitive in every game, and expectations are rightly higher than they were at this time last year when Cockerill had just taken over. However, after naming a matchday 23 including four men making their competitive debut (Hickey, Pyrgos, Luke Hamilton and Pierre Schoeman), the coach himself was eager to downplay the pressure on his own side and to hint that Ospreys have a lot more to lose in this cross-conference match.
“I don’t think we’ve won down there since 2011, so history isn’t looking good for us,” he said. “It’s a game they need to win though, isn’t it? Edinburgh are coming to their place, the first game of the season.
“It’s a very good side the Ospreys have put out, and we’ll have to be at our best to beat them. We’ll go down there and put our best game out on the field and with the mindset to play good rugby and be physically very good – and to go there to win.”
With the notable exception of John Barclay, who will be out of action until the new year after having Achilles surgery, Cockerill has been able to choose something very close to his first-choice 15 for this game. Willem Nel and Magnus Bradbury are other significant absentees – returning from knee and calf injuries respectively, they should both be available to play against Ulster next week – but such is the competition in the pack, they would not be automatic choices even if fully fit. Hamilton plays in the back row in place of Bradbury, while Nel’s tighthead jersey goes to Simon Berghan, who will be making his 50th appearance.
“He’s improved over the last year – you’ve seen that on the international stage and he played very well for us. We have to keep working with Simon and I think he can get better and better.
“He needs to concentrate every time he plays. He needs to be on it. If he does then he’s very good; if he doesn’t he can get himself caught out. And with competition from Murray McCallum and WP Nel we want to drive up standards at tighthead.
“Berghan has done very well. I’m happy with how he’s going, and at this point he’s probably No 1 tighthead in Scotland and he’ll work hard to keep that slot.”
Competition for places
Cockerill also insisted that Scott and Bennett will have to work hard to keep their positions, as no doubt every member of the squad must do, but there is little doubt that, all being well, those two will be the key men at Nos 12 and 13. “They both have a lot of international experience,” the coach accepted. “Matt Scott has been our best front-foot ball-carrier in the midfield over pre-season. I’ve seen him do that here and previously with Gloucester. He has been very dangerous ball in hand.
“Mark Bennett only played half a season last year after having a year out [because of injury]. He’s starting to find his form again, and he has an opportunity to put a marker down. Both are very good and essentially we must make sure both are very strong defensively as well. I’m looking forward to see how they go, but with guys like Chris Dean and [Juan Pablo] Socino, James Johnstone, George Taylor, there’s some competition in that midfield. So they have to make sure they perform.”
Similarly, Cockerill insisted that former New Zealand Under-20s captain Hickey will face a lot of competition from Jaco van der Walt, who ended last season as the undisputed first choice at stand-off. “Simon understands the game very well and is the right choice to run the team this week. I thought Jaco ran the team well against Newcastle. It’s going to be a real good battle between those two for the 10 shirt, but I think that the competition will drive standards up. Both 10s can’t start. It’s Simon’s turn this week.”
No doubt Van der Walt’s turn will come soon, but you do not choose your first team of the season lightly. This Edinburgh line-up has the stamp of Cockerill all the way through it, in contrast to last season when the coach had to deal mainly with what he had inherited.
Edinburgh (v Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium, Friday 7.35pm, live on Premier Sports 2): B Kinghorn; D Fife, M Bennett, M Scott, D van der Merwe; S Hickey, H Pyrgos; P Schoeman, S McInally, S Berghan, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, L Hamilton, H Watson, V Mata. Substitutes: R Ford, A Dell, M McCallum, F McKenzie, J Ritchie, S Kennedy, J van der Walt, J Johnstone.
Ospreys: D Evans; G North, S Williams, O Watkin, H Dirksen; L Price, A Davies; N Smith, S Otten, T Botha, B Davies, A Jones, D Lydiate, J Tipuric, J King. Substitutes: S Baldwin, R Jones, A Jeffries, A Beard, S Cross, T Habberfield, S Davies, J Thomas.