A NEW Year has brought new hope to Edinburgh as they push for a PRO14 play-off place. They are still fifth in Conference B after those back-to-back wins over Glasgow, but a victory tonight (Saturday) at home to the Southern Kings could take them up to second if other results go their way.
On the face of it, with Scarlets at home to Dragons, third looks a more plausible place by the end of the weekend, but the point is that Richard Cockerill’s side are right back in the mix after an inconsistent start to their league campaign.
“These points are as important as the ones we’ve taken in the last two weeks,” the head coach said yesterday. “This is an important period for us.
“It’s an important game. There’s no doubt it’s not quite as glamorous as probably the last month has been, but these games are the ones that hopefully can push us into play-off contention. We’ve had some really tough fixtures earlier in the season and now the other teams are starting to play each other and knock each other off, so it’s important that we try and take advantage of that.”
Cockerill has had a fair idea for some time what his team was going to be for this game, and it is a measure of Edinburgh’s increasing depth that, despite the absence of most of their front-line internationals, this squad still looks fairly formidable in most departments. “It was half in the back of my mind about who might play and what combinations might come together,” the coach said when asked if he had pencilled this line-up in before the second game against the Warriors. “We’ve had four tough weeks, there’s some obligatory rest for the Test players, with then going into Europe and with them then going into the Six Nations tournament, so some are enforced and some are just given opportunities.
“I wouldn’t have picked Vili Mata but Luke Hamilton’s injury curtailed that. Vili was going to be on the bench, but unfortunately Luke didn’t pass his HIA test for his concussion. We’re pretty short on back-rowers, thus Vili starts, but he’s had three days off this week so he’s fresh and ready to go and happy to play.
“Apart from that all good. Looking forward to seeing how we go.”
The Kings are bottom of the conference with just one win from their 10 games to date – the shock home win over Glasgow back in September. Even allowing for the absence of so many key players, Edinburgh should be strong enough to claim five points, although Cockerill will warn his players to take nothing for granted.
“They’re a hard one to work out. There’s been lots of changes in their team over the last four games, but they’ve got some real threat, haven’t they? They’ve got some real pace in that back line and when teams don’t treat them as they should and show them the respect they should they cause them problems.
“So we’re going to play how we play. We know they’re going to come and be physical and get stuck in, but so are we. They’ve got a huge threat in that back line and a big forward pack who are very awkward, but it’s going to be a cold night in January in Edinburgh and we need to take advantage of that. So we’ll be going at them full frontal physically and we need to make sure that we control what they do when they have the ball and impose our game on them when we have it.”
Barclay’s waiting game
Meanwhile, John Barclay’s chances of making a comeback in time for the start of the Six Nations have become slimmer. The former Scotland captain needed Achilles surgery after being injured while playing for his old club Scarlets against Glasgow last May and has yet to play for his new team. A return for the home game against Italy at the start of next month is now unlikely, with Cockerill admitting a date has yet to be set for his Edinburgh debut.
“There’s no date at this point,” the coach added. “He’s had a serious injury and he’s an aging player, so there are no definitives on those. Achilles tendons can be notoriously a little bit tricky, and he’s an older player, and older players heal slower. He’s on target, but that could be six months or nine months, which is what we were told at the start.
“We’re just working through that. But he’s making good progress as we speak. He will play for Edinburgh this season.”
The six-month mark went some time ago, and exactly nine months would take us to late February, but Barclay himself said in June that he would not make a precise prediction for when he returned. “The surgeon says the target is the Six Nations next year, so we’ll go with that,” he wrote in his column for the BBC.
“If I’m ready, I’m ready. If I’m not, I’m not. Experience tells me that you can’t second-guess these things. The longer the rehab, the greater the unpredictability. There’s a lot of hard months ahead.”
Barclay may have to play a few games before being deemed ready for a Test return, and if so that would work in Edinburgh’s favour, with those games likely to fall when many of their forwards are absent on international duty. Of the others on the longer-term injury list, Matt Scott is due back in the next couple of weeks while Magnus Bradbury should not be far behind.
Edinburgh (v Southern Kings at BT Murrayfield, Saturday 7.35pm, live on Premier Sports): Dougie Fife; Darcy Graham, George Taylor, Juan Pablo Socino, Duhan van der Merwe; Simon Hickey, Nathan Fowles; Rory Sutherland, David Cherry, Simon Berghan, Fraser McKenzie, Callum Hunter-Hill, Jamie Ritchie, Luke Crosbie, Viliame Mata. Substitutes: Ross Ford, Pierre Schoeman, Pietro Ceccarelli, Ben Toolis, Ally Miller, Charlie Shiel, Jaco van der Walt, James Johnstone.
Southern Kings: Masixole Banda; Michael Makase, Harlon Klaasen, Tertius Kruger, Yaw Penxe; Martin Du Toit, Stefan Ungerer; Alulutho Tshakweni, Alandre Van Rooyen, Pieter Scholtz, Stephan Greeff, John-Charles Astle, Cyril-John Velleman, Martinus Burger, Ruaan Lerm. Substitutes: Michael Willemse, Nicolaas Oosthuizen, Luvuyo Pupuma, Lubabalo Mtyanda, Andries van Schalkwyk, Sarel Pretorius, Berton Klaasen, Ntabeni Dukisa.
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