EDINBURGH coach Alan Solomons has urged Ben Toolis to use tonight’s match against Ulster at BT Murrayfield as a launch pad towards winning his first cap against Italy at the same ground next Saturday afternoon.
The 22-year-old has enjoyed a meteoric rise from fringe-squad player to key member of the Edinburgh pack this season, and was rewarded with a call-up to the national training squad for this year’s RBS Six Nations.
The Australian-born lock, whose mother is from Carluke in South Lanarkshire, was not used in either of the national team’s opening matches. However, with Richie Gray now side-lined for the rest of the championship after injuring tendons in his arm against Wales last Sunday, an opportunity has opened up for Toolis or Jim Hamilton or Tim Swinson to team up alongside Jonny Gray when the Azzurri come calling in eight days’ time.
Toolis has been released back to his club this week instead of being wrapped in cotton wool like most of the key players in the national squad. While this might be regarded as an indication that he is not central to Scotland coach Vern Cotter’s plans for next week, Solomons reckons the logic of this decision might be that the youngster needs some more game time in order to be fully up to speed for his first cap.
“He hasn’t played for a while. We broke two weeks before the start of the Six Nations so if he didn’t play this weekend it would be his fourth week without rugby, and he’s a young guy in his first professional season so he needs quite a bit of game time,” said Solomons.
“I think against Italy would definitely be the ideal time to play him,” he added. “He is an absolutely outstanding athlete. He’s a combination of an athletic and enforcer lock. He’s physical; he’s got a tremendous work-rate; he’s highly intelligent; he calls the lineouts; and he’s got a massive future, I think.”
Edinburgh have also been boosted by the availability of wingers Tim Visser and Dougie Fife. The former played the full 80 minutes for Scotland against both France and Wales, while the latter scored a try after replacing Tommy Seymour in Paris, but dropped out of the squad last weekend.
Both players will be acutely aware of the need for a big performance against the Northern Irishmen tonight. With Seymour likely to have fully shrugged off his hip injury by the time the Italy game comes along, and Sean Lamont fit again after a calf problem, competition for selection to play on the wing against Italy is going to be intense.
While Solomons was clearly delighted to have his two most potent try scorers back in the Edinburgh side, he did express sympathy for one of the men to have missed out as a result. “I thought Tom Brown had a tremendous game against the Ospreys, certainly one of his best since I have been here. So it is tough on him, but it is great to have that strength in depth,” he said.
Hamish Watson has also been released by the national squad to play openside flanker. He takes over from Hugh Blake, whose hopes of making the most unlikely of international debuts against Italy after just two months (and one professional game) in this country must surely now be dead in the water.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh revealed yesterday that stand-off Tom Heathcote will not be extending his 12-month contract next season, and that he will move to Worcester Warriors during the summer. Despite this, he has been promoted from the bench to make his first start for the club since injuring his Achilles in late December.
With Finn Russell facing a two-week ban which will rule him out of the Italy game (pending an appeal), plus Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson both injured, Heathcote will be aware that this is an opportunity to stake a late claim for a call-up to the Scotland team – although club-mate Greig Tonks would appear to be at the front of the queue for the Scottish No 10 jersey after sitting on the bench against Wales last weekend.
Tonks is one of six Edinburgh players who have not been released by the national set-up this weekend, alongside Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford, Dave Denton, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Matt Scott.
The Murrayfield men go into this match on a high after beating first-placed Ospreys in the Guinness Pro12 table last Friday night – but Solomons is expecting a sterner test of his team’s ability and character against second placed Ulster this weekend.