Edinburgh young guns ease Grant Gilchrist blow

Flanker Hamish Watson makes his first start since returning from injury when Edinburgh face Connacht tonight. Picture: SNS

Flanker Hamish Watson makes his first start since returning from injury when Edinburgh face Connacht tonight. Picture: SNS

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ALAN Solomons has revealed that Scotland captain Grant Gilchrist is highly unlikely to be fit to take part in this season’s RBS Six Nations campaign after breaking his arm playing for Edinburgh against Lyon back in October.

Gilchrist conceded before Christmas that it was unlikely that he would be available for the start of the Six Nations campaign, which kicks off on 6 February away to France, but added that he was hopeful of playing a role in a few of the later games.

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However, Edinburgh head coach Solomons has now stated that he doesn’t anticipate the second-row being back in action again until about the same time as the tournament is drawing to a close against Ireland on 21 March.

“It will probably be about mid-March. That’s a guestimate but the thing has got to be completely right,” said the South African.

It has been a hugely frustrating season for the 24-year-old, who led the national side during their 2014 summer tour but then missed the first three weeks of the season after undergoing ankle surgery. Despite that, he showed enough sharpness in four games back to convince national head coach Vern Cotter to retain him as skipper during Scotland’s November Test series, only for injury to strike in his very next outing for Edinburgh.

As far as Edinburgh are concerned, however, the blow of losing Gilchrist has been somewhat compensated for by the emergence of Ben Toolis, who was rewarded yesterday with a 12-month contract extension after stepping up to the plate when injury left Solomons with very few second-row options.

Toolis has missed only 15 minutes of rugby in the eight matches Edinburgh have played since Gilchrist injured his arm, and Solomons was at pains yesterday to stress how impressed he has been with the former Australian international volleyball player.

“He has got his opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. That was a top level derby game he played against Glasgow last weekend and he did exceptionally well,” said Solomons.

“A massive plus for me this season has been four youngsters coming through, including Ben,” he continued.

“I know Alasdair Dickinson is back and playing superbly, and Allan Dell is out injured, but we mustn’t take anything away from Rory Sutherland. He has had a very, very good season. He’s come straight from club rugby and done incredibly well this season. He is a really fine prospect.

“Hamish Watson was playing terrifically well prior to his injury and its great now having him back, and I think Sammy Clyne grows game by game. So, to have four youngsters come through like that is fantastic.” All four of those players are in the starting line-up for tonight’s visit to Galway to take on Connacht. The Irishmen defeated Munster in their last outing and are unbeaten at home this season. They currently sit sixth in the Guinness Pro12 table, which is where eighth-placed Edinburgh need to get to if they are to qualify for the European Champions Cup next season, so there is no doubting the significance of this match.

“It’s clear they have a bigger budget than they have had in the past,” said Solomons. “To buy Bundee Aki and Mils Muliaina is a sign of that. Robbie Henshaw is another very fine player, Kieran Marmion at scrum-half is a very good player, and they’ve got a good loose trio there. So, they are a good side and they were good value for their win over Munster – which was no mean achievement.

“I know them from my time at Ulster and even in those days they were very, very difficult to beat at the Sportsground. It’s a very exposed field and they are used to it.

“I have never had the privilege in all my time going to Galway of seeing good weather there. I’m not saying they don’t get it, I just haven’t seen it – so we are expecting a battle.”

With that in mind, Solomons has opted to shift Roddy Grant to blindside flanker in order to accommodate the return to fitness of Hamish Watson. That means Edinburgh will be playing with two open-side flankers, which should stand them in good stead if the match descends into a mud wrestle.

Watson is making his first start since breaking his jaw in the same match as Gilchrist picked up his arm injury, although he played six minutes as a late replacement against Glasgow last weekend.

Despite his absence from the side in recent months, Watson’s early season form – during which time he played himself into Scotland’s extended training squad – was clearly enough to persuade Solomons to hand the youngster a two-year contract – and the flanker is ready to celebrate in style.

“The first two weeks after breaking my jaw were pretty bleak. I was in bed all the time apart from getting up when I tried to eat,” he said. “My face had swollen up massively because I’d had three plates put into my jaw. But now I’m back in two months so at least it was an alright recovery period and there is still a good portion of the season left to get back to playing well again.

“It was really great news for me when it was announced that I was in the extended training squad, so it was doubly disappointing when I got injured. But I’ve just got to focus on my Edinburgh stuff now, nail down a starting spot and go from there.”

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