YOUNG flanker Hamish Watson will put his friendship with international team-mate Blair Cowan on hold tomorrow as Edinburgh look to secure a home semi-final in the European Challenge Cup.
Cowan was a stand-out performer for Scotland in a challenging Six Nations campaign and Watson loved every minute of working with the New Zealand-born openside in the national squad. But at the Madejski Stadium in Reading tomorrow, Cowan’s London Irish stand in the way of Scottish ambition and the 23-year-old Manchester-born breakaway is expecting nothing less than a fierce mano a mano contest.
“It will be a really good match-up,” said Watson. “It is a personal battle and he is Scotland’s No 1 seven at the moment, so it is a good chance for me to see how I go up against him.
“Every game you need to be up for, and obviously a European quarter-final doesn’t need extra motivation, but it does add a little bit extra spice because it is against Blair.
“I did a lot of practice with him in the Scotland squad. He would start, then I’d swap in, so I get familiar in the role as well. He was a great help to me during the Six Nations, is a good guy and I was unfamiliar with the roles at first and I would ask him and he would help out. I got to know Blair pretty well.
“Of course there is competition and taking his place some day is obviously in the back of my mind but, at the end of the day, you are still friends.”
Watson is a product of the Leicester Tigers Academy but is Scottish-qualified through his grandparents and made his international debut in the harrowing home defeat by Italy in February. He came off the bench for the last 30 minutes, but was yellow-carded late on as the Italian maul wreaked havoc.
Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons has been impressed by his young charge, who bounced back from a broken jaw sustained in a bruising pool-stage clash with Lyon last October to force his way into the international reckoning and put in some fine displays as the side’s Guinness Pro12 resurgence gathers pace.
“He is physically gifted. His genetics are good. He is a dynamic, explosive athlete. His workrate is phenomenal; he is a machine,” is the Solomons verdict. “He certainly doesn’t stand back for anybody. He is a great guy, very likeable and an excellent team man. He has a massive future ahead of him.
“Obviously, Blair is a good player and has done very well in the Six Nations, but I think Hamish will relish the opportunity to play against him.”
Edinburgh make four changes to the side that ended Scarlets’ 15-month unbeaten home run last weekend, including the return of three internationals. Dougie Fife has recovered from injury to take his place on the right wing, while, in the pack, Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford return at loosehead and hooker. Captain Mike Coman sustained a head knock against Scarlets and, following the return-to-play protocols, Roddy Grant moves up from the bench to start on the blindside and complete a back-row that also includes Watson and David Denton at No 8.
Only half of London Irish’s tartan contingent will be in action tomorrow, with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s old Merchiston school pal Scott Steele at scrum-half in addition to Cowan. Edinburgh and Scotland loosehead Dickinson will not be getting a close-up examination of Geoff Cross’s new clean-shaven look as the tighthead is not included in the Exiles’ 23 and neither is Glasgow-bound lock Kieran Low. Irish’s all-time leading tryscorer, Topsy Ojo, returns to the line-up in the only change to the team that edged Newcastle Falcons 22-21 in the Aviva Premiership last weekend.
This will be the fourth time the sides have met competitively, each occasion being in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup (2002-03 and 2011-12). Edinburgh have won the last three encounters, the most recent two coming in the historic run to the semi-finals, in which they narrowly lost 22-19 to Ulster in Dublin after beating Toulouse in front of nearly 40,000 at Murrayfield.
Admittedly, tomorrow evening’s contest comes in the second-tier Challenge Cup, but a victory in Reading would set up a home semi-final against Cardiff Blues or Newport Gwent Dragons – a match-up in which you would think Edinburgh would consider themselves slight favourites to reach the final.
Watson was a newly-arrived youngster learning his trade during that run to the Heineken last four, but he remembers the buzz created at the club and would love to be involved in a similar run to the latter stages of Europe.
“It was my first year at the club. I didn’t play in the Heineken Cup although I did play a few games in the league,” recalls Watson. “That cup run was incredible and there are still quite a few players around now that were involved and can use their experience from that. People like Roddy [Grant] and Viss [Tim Visser] do feed in. Hopefully, we can grab a win there [at London Irish] like we did during that campaign and make that semi-final.”
Solomons, who hopes an extension to his two-year contract can be finalised soon, believes his side have every chance of doing just that. “What you are dealing with here is play-off rugby,” said the South African. “They are all one-off games, so it is very, very important that you take your opportunities – that is critical – and you give away as little as possible. We have to be disciplined in this game and we have to be accurate.”
Asked to choose between a European semi-final and a top-six placing in the Guinness Pro12, Solomons said he simply couldn’t. “We want both,” he stressed. “They are both incredibly important to us. We want to play in the top level in Europe so the top six, if we don’t do that we don’t play in the Champions Cup, the top European competition. We want to play in that, that is absolutely critical for us. The bottom line is that we have given them equal priority. They are equally important for us.”
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