The day after Tommy Allan’s future was cemented by an Italian squad selection, another former Scotland under-20 cap, Sean Kennedy, has been handed the chance to show his promise against Italians Zebre in Edinburgh colours.
Born in Scotland, an early childhood spent in Ireland, club duty with Stirling County and then an academy contract with Edinburgh was the fairly straightforward part of the scrum-half’s rise to prominence.
But it was in Glasgow Warriors colours that he made his biggest mark to date, being called in to fill in during an injury crisis and duly finding himself thrust into the team as Chris Cusiter struggled with injury and Henry Pyrgos joined the Scotland camp.
Good performances led to a call-up for Kennedy to Scotland’s training squad for the Six Nations and opened the coaches’ eyes to his quality.
Then, with Fijian Niko Matawalu on board, Pyrgos back and Cusiter fit, Kennedy moved back to Edinburgh where he spent the early part of this season on the fringes of the squad and playing in the RBS Premiership for Heriot’s. Tonight brings an opportunity, however, with Greig Laidlaw one of six first choices missing due to Scotland squad requirements and injuries.
Ross Ford, David Denton, Matt Scott, Nick de Luca and Tim Visser are all out. Alasdair Dickinson has been released by Scotland, but only to the bench and with Dimitri Basilaia injured, in come Aleki Lutui, Tomas Leonardi and Wicus Blaauw to the pack, and Kennedy, Ben Atiga, Joaquin Dominguez and Jack Cuthbert to the back line.
There is also a return to the team and captaincy for new dad Roddy Grant, the birth of his daughter Reeva having taken him out of the picture last week. Ross Rennie is a welcome face back on the bench and there is also a place in the 23 for new Kiwi signing Sam Beard.
It is a very different place from a year ago for Kennedy but the 22-year-old does not feel he has fallen from grace in any shape or form, and is eager to use this latest challenge to reaffirm his ability and ambition to be part of the international set-up in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup.
He said: “Last season at Glasgow it was very unfortunate for Chris Cusiter to get injured. But it opened the door and, as an academy player, that was ideal for me to get exposure at pro level. This season, Greig [Laidlaw] is number one for Scotland and captain here so it’s a bit different. Getting in the Scotland squad was a big surprise for me really, it’s not something I thought was going to happen at the time.
“At the start of the season, I knew that, realistically, I would probably have to wait until now to get a chance. Greig got injured at the start of the season so I got a chance then but, in my own mind, it was going to be now before I really got a chance to get a game.”
It is the interminable problem of Scottish rugby, the lack of opportunities afforded by a two-team system for young players to develop properly.
Kennedy backs himself as a top-quality scrum-half who will make it, given time, and well he might. He is quick, has good hands, kicks well, is a solid defender and offers a threat in attack. He just needs games to learn how to manage the game at this level. So tonight is a good chance for him to again find his feet from the start of a competitive match and start to impose himself.
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, reserve tonight, is another talent coming through and Kennedy rates their battle for Laidlaw’s No 9 jersey as level-pegging.
While most RaboDirect Pro12 teams are resting their internationals this weekend – the kind of thing that irks the English and French clubs – Zebre have named seven of their nine players called up by Italy coach Jacques Brunel for the autumn Tests. They have experienced lock Quintin Geldenhuys and winger Giambattista Venditti back from injury, so this is far from an easy match for a Scottish side bidding to continue their climb away from the foot of the table.
Head coach Alan Solomons remembers the start of the Celtic League, when he was at Ulster, and admitted: “The Pro12 has developed to the extent now that there are no easy matches. When I was involved with Ulster, there were games that were a bit easier as some of the Welsh sides played as clubs. When you look at it today, Connacht, for example, are not a side to be sneezed at.
“I know Leinster were depleted at the RDS the other day but that is a powerful provincial union and they nearly won that game. Leinster won it with a penalty try at the death.
“Zebre are not at full strength but they have a good side and have a number of top-class players who play for Italy. They also have Brendon Leonard, who played for the All Blacks at number nine, and they beat Cardiff away from home and drew with the Scarlets recently.
“So, we are expecting a strong game. But this presents a wonderful opportunity for a lot of our players who perhaps have not had the opportunity. It will be a tough challenge, but I have every confidence in them.”
Edinburgh, 15 G Tonks, 14 D Fife, 13 J Dominguez, 12 B Atiga, 11 J Cuthbert, 10 H Leonard, 9 S Kennedy, 1 W Blaauw, 2 A Lutui, 3 WP Nel, 4 G Gilchrist, 5 I van der W’huizen, 6 T Leonardi, 7 R Grant (capt), 8 C Du Preez, Subs, 16 J Hilterbrand, 17 A Dickinson, 18G Cross, 19S Cox, 20 R Rennie, 21 S Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 S Beard, 23 L Jones.
Zebre, 15 D Berryman, 14 L Sarto, 13 T Iannone, 12 G Garcia, 11 G Venditti, 10 L Orquera, 9 B Leonard, 1 S Perugini, 2 D Giazzon, 3 D Chistolini, 4 Q Geldenhuys, 5 M Bortolami (capt), 6 F Cristiano, 7 E Caffini, 8 S Vunisa, Subs, 16 L Leibson, 17 A de Marchi, 18 D Ryan, 19M van Vuren, 20 A Manici, 21 A Chillon, 22 D Odiete, 23 G Toniolatti
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