Edinburgh will go into their final match of the season at home to Cardiff Blues today without star forward John Hardie after coach Alan Solomons revealed the Scotland flanker’s race is run.
There remains a slim chance that Edinburgh could make the Guinness Pro12 top six and secure a Champions Cup spot if they win by a bonus point this afternoon and other results go their way but Solomons said that the New Zealand-born player is feeling the effects of a gruelling run of games and has opted for Hamish Watson at openside.
“John came straight from Super Rugby to Scotland ahead of the World Cup. He’s had back-to-back seasons, including a World Cup and a Six Nations,” said Solomons. “He could play, he’s available, but he’s struggling with the amount of rugby he’s played I think. Hamish is playing well and gets that spot.”
For his part, Watson is delighted to get his chance and said: “John has played a lot this season and international games can take it out of you. Maybe he’s a bit tired, I don’t know, but I’ve got the nod and hopefully I can play well and make the most of the opportunity.
“John has been playing well, but if you can get the nod on him at club level, that’s got to be noticed higher up at international level. It’s good to have that competition with John.”
Watson is one of four changes to the side who lost to Munster in Cork last week and, barring a miracle, kissed goodbye to their season’s goal of a top-half finish.
Dougie Fife will play his final game for the club after his end-of-season release was confirmed earlier in the week, replacing Blair Kinghorn, who took a head knock in Ireland, at full-back.
In the pack Rory Sutherland comes in at loosehead for Alasdair Dickinson, who has a back injury, and Nasi Manu returns from a long injury lay-off to fill the blindside berth.
Outgoing centre Andries Strauss will play his 50th and last game for the club and form a midfield partnership with another departee, Matt Scott, who is off to Gloucester in the summer.
Solomons has called for one final push from his troops but admits it is difficult to see them ending the day in the promised land of the top half.
“It will be very tough because you have to depend on results going your way as well as our own game against Cardiff,” said the South African. “This league has become exceptionally tough. There are nine sides who can all beat each other.
“With a game to go we are 11 points off a play-off spot, in my first season we were 32 points off. In the second season 21. The league has become very competitive, which is a positive thing.”
There is no doubt that a third successive season outside the top six would be a huge disappointment, but Solomons is adamant that the club is improving.
“I think we’ve made progress,” he insisted. “For us to say we have attained what we want to attain we would have to have made the top six. That’s the key for us.
“Progress has been there. In my first season we won seven games, 38 points, a negative points difference of 129. In the second season 48 points, ten wins, negative points difference of 20, 21 off the top four. This season at the moment we’re on 53 points, 11 wins with a game to play, a positive points difference of 43 and just 11 off the top four. So for us we’ve made progress.”
Solomons has once again opted for Sean Kennedy ahead of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne at scrum-half and explained: “Sammy at the moment is perhaps not playing to merit selection. Sean comes in on merit. Sammy has come on and made a difference. And in fact Sean has come on and made a difference, as has Nathan [Fowles]. But at the moment Sean edges it on merit.”
Cardiff will be missing Wales captain Sam Warburton through injury but welcome back the Test duo of Lloyd Williams and Tom James.