IF EVER there is a case for overhauling more than half a rugby team then surely it is when fixtures such as Edinburgh’s Heineken European Cup meeting with Racing Metro tonight at Murrayfield take place back to back.
The teams met just six days ago in Paris and recasting personnel can make it difficult for opponents to fix tactics based on up-to-date form – as acknowledged by Edinburgh’s coach, Michael Bradley.
At some point, though, it is reasonable to expect continuity that is intrinsic to developing a team would be an early casualty and, adding to the unpredictability, is the presence of Ben Cairns for his first professional outing since going down injured in a pre-season friendly 16 months ago and for only his second game overall during that period.
Cairns’s knee ligament damage was acute, but ushering him back at this level so quickly does raise questions about how European Rugby’s marquee event is being viewed at Murrayfield now Edinburgh are effectively out. In firmly rejecting any suggestion that selection has to be tailored to meet the needs of a Scotland side preparing for the Six Nations Championship, coach Bradley insists a correct balance has been struck and that it would be unwise not to take advantage of all available resources.
There is a double-header with Glasgow and all the bragging rights those fixtures entail looming. Bradley said: “There are a number of players coming back from injury. We need to get them on the park.”
Alluding to a signing from New Zealand who will be Edinburgh’s fourth stand off in six games, he added: “Piers [Francis] has just arrived, so we want to give him a start and Chris Leck and Richie Rees are always competing [for the scrum half shirt]. There’s also a need to get Netani [Talei] and Dimitri [Basilaia] on the pitch to show what they can do. I definitely would not want to bring everybody back at the same time, but they are quality players and we don’t see any issue.”
Where most eyebrows will be raised is in keeping South African Willem Nel on the bench when the prop made a near game-changing contribution to the scrum when introduced as an impact substitute during last week’s 19-9 loss in Paris.
Nel is kept in reserve again, but whether fans desperate to see a win are being short-changed somewhere within the Edinburgh parent organisation is a legitimate question.
Likewise, Edinburgh surrendered lineout possession in attacking zones last week, but this is attributed more to tricks of the trade employed by Racing and duly noted than any wayward throwing.
“We had 20 lineouts and we got the ball on 18 occasions,” said Bradley. “Taking into account the delivery to the No 9 [scrum half] that dropped to 15.”
Drawing a parallel with tennis in claiming possession was disrupted, Bradley said: “Racing did a couple of unusual things. There were a couple of ‘Andy Murray serves’ coming through when we had the ball high in the air. They had a couple of tricks which caught us, but, by and large, the lineout is functioning fine.”
One player who has retained his place is Grant Gilchrist and it would surely have defied belief if the 22-year-old second row hadn’t been kept on. That’s because Gilchrist has the distinction of being included in a “team of the week” listed by ERC on the basis of statistical data using “unique mathematical formulae and modelling to objectively compare player performance”. In other words ball carrying, tackling, etc.
Acknowledging Gilchrist’s progress, Bradley said: “Grant is a good listener, a good student of the game. He works very hard at the detail of what he does day in day out.
“He is getting quite close to his ultimate goal of representing his country and there has been a gradual and continuous improvement.”
Something dramatic by way of improvement is needed tonight, though, from an Edinburgh team who stand alone in the tournament as failing to reach double figures in points terms, but, intriguingly, Racing have made eight changes to the hosts nine. In the group’s other game, Saracens play Munster on Sunday.