John Hardie has resumed training with Edinburgh and is in good condition despite his enforced break, according to assistant coach Duncan Hodge. The Scotland openside flanker’s three-month suspension for gross misconduct still has more than two weeks to run when it comes to playing in games, but when the ban was announced back in October it was ruled that he should be permitted to train with the squad from New Year’s Day.
“He’s been back the last two days,” Hodge said yesterday. “Personally it’s great to see him back training. He’s not been with us the last month, so it’s good to have him back, albeit he can’t be selected until the 19th. From his point of view it’s great to have him back training and get him fit.”
Hardie went back home to New Zealand for a time last month, but according to Hodge he has looked after himself well during the lay-off.
“He certainly looks all right at training,” the coach added. “Not like you or I if we had a month off.”
The 29-year-old has played 16 times for Scotland to date, and at least in theory will be able to play against Wales next month in the first game of the Six Nations Championship, in Cardiff on Saturday 3 February. To do so, however, he will probably have to make an appearance in the only Edinburgh game available to him before the tournament begins – the Challenge Cup match against Stade Francais in Paris on 20 January, the day after his playing ban expires.
Hardie cannot play in Edinburgh’s next two games, against the Southern Kings this Friday then Stade Francais a week later, both at Myreside, and the last weekend in January is a fallow one for the pro teams.
His only other chance to build on his match fitness would be to play in the BT Premiership on 27 January, but it remains to be seen if Scotland coach Gregor Townsend regards that as a proper measure of suitability for the rigours of Test rugby.
Competition in the back row has increased markedly over the last year, meaning the No 7 is far from being the automatic choice he was when he burst on to the scene just before the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
While Hardie is unavailable this weekend, Edinburgh’s injury problems are clearing up. Mark Bennett could make his long-awaited debut against the Kings, having been out of action since being injured in last season’s Calcutta Cup clash, and his fellow-centre James Johnstone should also be able to play after recovering from the shoulder knock he sustained in Saturday’s 17-0 defeat by Glasgow. Loosehead prop Rory Sutherland is “touch and go for this week” according to Hodge, so he appears more likely to make his return in the first Stade Francais game, a win in which would confirm Edinburgh’s place in the quarter-finals.
The back-to-back games against the French club should certainly be tougher propositions than the visit of the Kings, who have lost all ten of their PRO14 matches so far. The Port Elizabeth-based outfit have not played since losing 48-21 to Edinburgh at home on 1 December, but Edinburgh forward Cornell du Preez, a former Kings player, insisted that they would not be treated lightly.
“They’ve been struggling this season because they lost a lot of players to Super Rugby and they’re coming to new places to play,” he said. “I think they’re just trying to build a team and get used to things, but they are still tough to play against.
“I’m not sure if they were off or training, but maybe it was a good thing for them to get a bit of time off from the long year they’ve had. I look forward to seeing how they cope with the cold when they come here. It’s probably 28-30 degrees every day over there.”
For his part, Hodge believes the month’s break will work against the Kings, although he too said there was no room for complacency. “We know them very well – we were their last game. They haven’t played since then. That’s quite a good thing.
“But they’ve got a very quick back three and any mistakes you make can be latched upon. So our kicking game and how we control the ball is really important against them.”