Coach Michael Bradley is missing all of the internationalists from Scotland’s successful tour to Australasia, except prop Geoff Cross, who played only a small part in the summer Tests and so has swiftly returned to pre-season action.
When Bradley was forced to play matches last season without the core of his Scotland players, Edinburgh struggled and that, more than any other factor, lay behind the disparity between the historic Heineken Cup run and the under-achievement in the RaboDirect PRO12. It is famously tough to compete on both fronts, but with an extra £1.2m to spend on players this summer, both Edinburgh and Glasgow are seeking to make a much better fist of that this season.
The key lies in the quality of the newcomers and tonight Edinburgh supporters who head to Kingston Park, and the many new Borders fans turned on by Greig Laidlaw’s men’s heroics last season who drive over the Border, will have their first glimpse of these new men.
Greig Tonks, signed from Northampton, All Black centre Ben Atiga and Mike Penn from Worcester bolster a back division that also features Scotland wing Lee Jones, who missed the summer tour through injury. Former England hooker Andy Titterrell joins Cross and Allan Jacobsen, rested from the tour, in a strong front row, while Georgian flanker Dimitri Basilaia completes a back row with Roddy Grant and Stuart McInally.
Bradley plans to give the starting XV the bulk of the match before introducing some of the 15 replacements named, with South African prop Willem Nel, lock Perry Parker and former Cardiff scrum-half Richie Rees other summer signings primed for debuts.
“Competition for places is the essence of driving performance and getting improved results,” said Bradley, “so that was the formula we were going for.
“It should be a very interesting year from a selection point of view. There is pressure on all players to perform and there are options in all positions, which is a good position for Edinburgh to be in.
“Our existing players are a year older and a year wiser, too. Expectation has risen, but those players understand that they can achieve a lot with Edinburgh Rugby and they want to get back to play-offs in the business end of the season. Then we have internationalists coming back who got a well-deserved, positive result in Australia, and they, too, are anxious to get back into the side.
“So with the combination of the new players and competition for places we expect this side to be well capable of competing on both fronts because it means that every training session in terms of how they perform is important and every match is equally important. It also enables you to rest players in-season, and you’re not worried about potential injury to a specific player who isn’t backed up by a strong option.”
That message has not been lost on the players, with McInally one of many desperate to grasp the opportunity tonight to prove he deserves a place when the season starts against Munster in a fortnight.
He said: “All the boys wanted to be in the team this week, particularly me at No 8, and training has been intense because the games are getting closer; there’s an added edge. I’ve spoken to a lot of boys who were on the Scotland tour and they are just anxious to get going as well, so those of us who have the opportunity against Newcastle know we have to play well.
“You see the back row we’ve picked – Dimitri at six has turned up and looks great; Roddy at seven has a lot of experience and I’m looking to really cement my place at No 8 this year – and you look at the players still to come in: Denton, Rennie, Netani and Hamish Watson, a talented youngster striving to take over the No 7 jersey as well, and it highlights the strength only in the back row. The other positions are the same.
“But that absolutely excites me. I feel I’ve improved a lot in a lot of areas and this is by far the best pre-season I’ve had so I’m in the best position to play well, so for me now it’s about delivering on the pitch. We have all the resources we need so it’s about us delivering now, and having the players to allow everyone to get rests when they need it but not at the expense of losing games is a big plus.”
McInally is particularly looking forward to facing Newcastle No 8 Allister Hogg, who he admits was an inspiration to him as a teenager at George Watson’s College, but a new-look Falcons team under Dean Richards is expected to also feature summer Scottish captures Rory Lawson and Scott MacLeod.
Dropped to the Championship, the Falcons began their pre-season last weekend, claiming victories over fellow Championship sides Doncaster Knights (52-17) and Leeds Carnegie (52-19), and have their sights set firmly on a rapid return to the Aviva Premiership, so the game should provide a stern test of Edinburgh’s early strength.