Burleigh lays claim to final place

DECISIONS, decisions, decisions. Alan Solomons has been making them all season but rarely from a position of strength.

Edinburghs Phil Burleigh storms clear during the capital sides European Challenge Cup victory. Picture: SNS

He has had to decide who to drop into the third row of the scrum when stripped at various times of three leading contenders Mike Coman, David Denton and Cornel du Preez.

Solomons has had to shuffle his back division in the continued absence of Matt Scott and his troublesome shoulder. He has had to accept the loss of the giant lock, Grant Gilchrist, for almost the entire campaign and he has done the hokey cokey with WP Nel and John Andress at tighthead prop. Again the South African has emerged as the leading contender, but only after receiving a metaphorical boot up the backside by being repeatedly left on the bench. The Edinburgh scrum duly dismantled the Dragons’ set-piece while Ben Toolis bossed the sidelines.

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Following Friday’s comprehensive victory over Newport Gwent Dragons in the European Challenge Cup semi-finals, Solomons has more decisions to make, only these ones are the type that coaches like. Should he play Hamish Watson at seven for his ball-carrying ability or stick with Roddy Grant, who won several crucial turnovers, including one that led directly to Dougie Fife’s try? Will he stick with the influential and intelligent Mike Coman at eight, if the more rumbustious David Denton recovers from his head knock in time for the final? Will he stick with Stuart McInally as a makeshift six because he carries the ball better than almost anyone else available?

But the biggest conundrum facing the Edinburgh coach ahead of that 1 May final is who to play at stand-off because Phil Burleigh took to the role like a duck to orange sauce.

The Kiwi recruit from the Highlanders has only started a couple of matches in the No 10 shirt for Edinburgh, but he looked like he was born to the position on Friday albeit the forwards’ domination made his task all the easier. He peppered the corners, continually finding space behind the Dragons’ back three. He invariably chose the right option and, if a couple of touch-finders had not stayed in play, it would have been hard to find fault with his display.

“I think the forwards made my job really easy with go-forward ball,” said Burleigh immediately after the match. “They were disappointed in last week’s effort [against Munster] and they really fronted up today. I think the backs enjoyed it tonight. The forwards made the base for us to attack like that, especially in the first half.

“We put a lot of pressure on them and split the game up at the right time and it worked for us.”

“We did catch them (the wingers) out of position a few times. That really helped. Our field position was good today. There was a couple of hairy kicks at time but mostly good.”

Burleigh was employed as a centre by the Highlanders and has spent much for current season playing there for Edinburgh. He probably isn’t quite quick enough for the wing, but he undoubtedly has the skill set to play anywhere else in the outside backs.

With regular No.10 Greig Tonks nursing a hamstring and Tom Heathcote moving to Worcester this summer, perhaps Burleigh can lay claim to Edinburgh’s No.10 shirt for the duration? What does he think his best position is? “I don’t know,” he says diffidently. “I guess I am a utility [back]. I enjoying playing anywhere, wherever I am needed to be honest. As long as we are winning games I am happy.

“It’s totally up to Solly [Alan Solomons]. Obviously I have got to perform in that position. I really enjoyed it tonight, so I would love to play there a little bit more.”

Scotland adapted to professional rugby like a dog adapts to a snorkel and flippers, but things are finally looking up. Glasgow are a sure thing to make the Guinness Pro12 play-offs and now Edinburgh have booked themselves a final in the European Challenge Cup a week on Friday. It’s been a long time coming.

Burleigh has only been at the club for one season, but the Kiwi appears to understand exactly what this achievement means to his fellow team-mates who now have their eyes set on a European prize.

“There is a lot of experience in this team, guys that have been here for a number of years. I think before the game was the biggest thing – I could feel the boys were really up for it. The guys that have been here for a long time, you could see it in their eyes. They really wanted it tonight. I am really happy for them.

“I think you could see after the game, the boys weren’t jumping about and yahooing. We knew we had done a good job, but we want to win that final and that has been our goal right from the start, so we are looking forward to it in a couple of weeks’ time.”

Burleigh will be in that starting XV for the final, providing he emerges unscathed from next weekend’s match against Zebre, but which position he fills will be Alan Solomons’ decision.

It is the type of head-scratcher the South African coach likes to have.