John Hardie is relishing the prospect of a “kilted Kiwi” back-row showdown with Scotland team-mate Blair Cowan when Edinburgh open their European Challenge Cup campaign at London Irish on Saturday.
Wellington-born Cowan made his Scotland debut in 2014, a year before Southlander Hardie but has not featured since the 2016 Six Nations and the latter is now just one behind the former’s cap tally of 17.
The two openside flankers famously played together in the epic World Cup quarter-final against Australia, with Hardie switching to blindside on that occasion.
“Blair and myself get on really well. He joined us in the World Cup and played well,” said Hardie.
“He’s a quality player and has been a big player for them for a long time. He’s someone we’ll need to watch out for, especially over the ball and his attacking threat too. It will be good.”
Cowan was an injury call-up to Vern Cotter’s World Cup squad as a replacement for Grant Gilchrist after the second pool game but the flanker has only featured a couple of times for Scotland since.
Hardie is, of course, locked in a fierce battle with Hamish Watson to be considered the No 1 choice for the Edinburgh No 7 jersey. When all fit, back row is one area where head coach Richard Cockerill has a plethora of options and Hardie admits he would find it a struggle to make the selection calls.
“It’s a hard one because there are so many good options at the moment,” said the 29-year-old. “We’ve got good depth there at the moment with a group of young boys who are performing well. That’s great for the club. We’ve got good stocks in the back row. They all have their good traits and I couldn’t really pick it.”
Hardie believes there could be scope for both him and Watson to start a game, but only when the conditions were right.
“It’s probably something we could try,” said the former Highlanders player. “We’ve tried it a wee bit at the end of games. You need the right sort of game, free-flowing and open.”
Entering the crunch period of Europe and then heading into the autumn Tests, Hardie believes he is well placed to get his season fully up and running.
“The last few weeks I’ve had a bit of time off the bench,” he said. “I’m enjoying it and ready to rip into it this week if selected. I think I’m building well, fitness and body are good so there is no real excuse.”
Hardie is about to enter his third year with Edinburgh after joining up following the 2015 World Cup and he believes the club is in a better place now than when he first signed.
“We have a young team and need to have everybody on the same page but it is improving,” he said.
“There are a lot of young guys coming through and that is keeping us on our toes. I can remember when I first came we did not have great depth but we have two or three sides we could put out and that is really positive.
“We are heading in a great direction at the moment. We were not happy with last week’s performance but it is about being consistent every week.
“There is a sort of no fear attitude. If we are to be a good team we have to have the sort of performance we put in against Leinster every week.”
Of course that Leinster performance in Dublin, admirable as it was in respects, ended in defeat, and Cockerill knows a loss, no matter how gallant, will be more costly this weekend.
“I think it’s important we get a good start to the competition, because if we can get a positive result on Saturday then we go to Russia against Krasny Yar, which you’d like to think you’d win,” said the coach. “And then, suddenly, you can be in a really good strong position after two rounds with two home games to come in the next two. And Stade Francais in the last two weekends. Certainly, if you get a positive start and win at London Irish, it sets you up for a positive tournament. Then you start to look at trying to get out of the pool stages.
“For us, it’s going there and not playing within ourselves, which we probably did a little bit this weekend – this team, with pressurised games, don’t seem to be able to play freely in that environment yet. We’re still working on that.
“But I think we can go to London Irish with some optimism. And probably the pressure’s off us a little bit.”
There will be no reunion with former Edinburgh skipper Mike Coman and full-back Greig Tonks, who are now at London Irish but currently on the injured list, but scrum-half Scott Steele, pictured left, could lock horns with his old school pal Sam Hidalgo-Clyne at the Madejski Stadium again. The 24-year-old from Dumfries, who is the son of former referee John Steele, was a team-mate of Hidalgo-Clyne at Merchiston before moving to Leicester, where the now Edinburgh coach proved to be a huge influence in his career.
Cockerill gave Steele his Aviva Premiership debut against Newcastle in 2012 and Steele told his club’s website: “I’m grateful to Richard for giving me my opportunity in the team and it gave me a good platform to build on ahead of my move to London Irish.
“There was a lot of competition for places and with Ben Youngs at the club that really helped me to become a better player. The move to London Irish probably came at the right time for me and I’ve not looked back since.”
Steele has faced Edinburgh a couple of times in this competition in recent years but insisted it was still special to come up against the team from a city that is close to his heart.
“I have many fond memories from my time in Edinburgh and you could say that it’s a place where my rugby playing career took off,” he said.
“I really improved my game while in Edinburgh and I lived and breathed rugby every day, which contributed to me getting my move to Leicester.”