Edinburgh acting head coach Duncan Hodge admits it was “a tough call” to drop Scotland stand-off Duncan Weir for tonight’s crunch European Challenge Cup quarter-final against La Rochelle at BT Murrayfield.
With the club languishing ninth in the Guinness Pro12 the visit of the French Top 14 leaders represents Edinburgh’s last chance to spark something out of the dying embers and Hodge, who will be replaced by Richard Cockerill next season, has opted for Welshman Jason Tovey in the pivotal role tonight. Weir was shunted from Glasgow to Edinburgh last summer after finding himself in the shadow of Scotland’s top No 10 Finn Russell, and the fact he now finds himself kicking his heels on the bench for the capital club’s biggest game of the season will be a blow.
Edinburgh’s 26-10 loss at Scarlets last Friday was the worst of six straight defeats in the Pro12 since the turn of the year and Weir has paid the price.
“It’s two-fold. Duncan didn’t have his best game last week and there is some tactical things in there,” explained Hodge after naming his team yesterday.
“Jason has played well for us in this competition and earlier in the season. He’s not played as much the last couple of months. That was a tough call.”
Former Dragons man Tovey brings a bit of swagger and enterprise for a match Hodge accepts Edinburgh must approach with gusto
“We’ve got to fire some shots,” said the coach. “They’re a decent team and it’s just getting that balance between attack and defence.”
Europe has provided the best moments of Edinburgh’s stuttering campaign, which saw Hodge take the reins from Alan Solomons following a poor start to the Pro12. A home win over Stade Francais and the double over Harlequins have showcased what they can do when things click but tonight will be their most formidable test in the competition thus far.
La Rochelle are shaping up to be 2017’s answer to Leicester City FC and Connacht as their seasoned band of foreign legionnaires and cast-offs have surged from nowhere to a commanding lead in the French Top 14.
The club from the small Atlantic coast port city have never won a major trophy and have spent most of their history in the lower leagues, with a ninth-place finish in the top flight last season, but they have outshone the aristocrats of Racing 92, Toulon and Toulouse this term to give themselves a shot at a fairytale title.
Edinburgh might take some solace from the fact that two of their stars have been named on the bench in the form of Aussie stand-off Brock James, who is replaced by his compatriot Zack Holmes, and former All Black flanker Victor Vito. Their French international back rower Kevin Gourdon starts the match at No 8, although massive tighthead Uini Atonio is not involved.
Edinburgh will be without Test prop Allan Dell, who has failed to come through concussion protocols, and lock Ben Toolis, who has back spasms. Scotland internationals Hamish Watson and Grant Gilchrist come back into the pack, with Murray McCallum shifting to loosehead to replace Dell.
As of yesterday afternoon ticket sales for the game, which has been moved back from Myreside, were understood to be around the 5,000 mark and Hodge said: “If we play well we will get a good support. We are just focusing on doing our bit.
“We all know there is pressure going into the game, we don’t get many European quarter-finals at home against quality sides. There is plenty of pressure riding on this game. We all know that. We accept that. There will be moments that will be tough and we have to keep our clarity of thought, which we did not do last week [at Scarlets].”
Gilchrist and Stuart McInally, who is on the bench tonight, were named co-captains at the start of the season but veteran hooker Ross Ford once again skippers the side tonight.
Scotland’s second most-capped player did not dodge the fact that morale has been hit by the losing streak but called on the team to use tonight’s occasion as a spur
“[Confidence] is obviously not going to be great because we haven’t won that many games, but it all comes back to this being another competition,” said Ford. “We have done well in it in the past and we’ve done well in it this season. We can look at the positives in that area.
“All you can do is train well and try to improve in every session and maintain the standards you’ve set yourself. It’s another competition and we’ll take confidence in what we did two years ago and in how we’ve gone this year, as well. We’ve played Stade and Harlequins, they are two good teams, and we’ve come out on the right side with the result, and played some great rugby at times. So we’ll set out to do that again.”
La Rochelle boast a sizeable pack and Ford admitted that Edinburgh will look to move them around the ample Murrayfield surface, but added: “There are going to be times in the game when we need to front up and be technically better than them.
“You’ve got to try to dent a few holes before you can go round the edge, otherwise it is just too easy to defend. So we are going to have to make sure we keep hold of the ball, and make the gain line, and make it as hard as possible for them to react to what we are doing.”
Ford is under no illusion about the size of the test ahead.
“They wouldn’t be top of the Top 14 if they didn’t have a really good squad but again that’s an opportunity we can look at,” he said. “They have a big pack and some aren’t the most mobile so maybe that’s an opportunity for us.
“We need to play at a high pace but within a structure –they have explosive runners in an unstructured game.
“If we maintain a rhythm we can cause trouble. It’ll about starting positively and building into the match.
“There will be ups and downs as in any match but we’ll look to come through them and impose ourselves on proceedings.”