Alan Solomons had reached for both ends of the experience spectrum in his selection for tonight’s European Challenge Cup match against Grenoble. The Kiwi flanker John Hardie makes his debut for the capital club who will be led onto the field by Alasdair “the squadfather” Dickinson who is making his 100th appearance in club colours.
Those hundred caps arrived in two separate batches. Fifty-nine of them came before the loosehead prop’s spell in England, 40 of them since his return in 2013, with tonight’s appearance making it a round 100 in all. Perhaps the split nature of his caps is why the milestone seems to have taken Dickinson by surprise.
“I had no idea to be honest,” he confessed. “I had absolutely no idea! Perhaps I am showing my age.”
Luckily for him, prop forward is one position in the field where age can be a big advantage and Dickinson is twice the player he was before his stint in the Aviva Premiership. Alongside Edinburgh team-mates WP Nel and Ross Ford, he enjoyed a successful World Cup and the international trio maintained that good form against Munster last weekend. Rarely, if ever, has the Munster tight five been so badly beaten at the set scrum and driving maul and still escaped with the win; a point that was not lost on the Edinburgh coach.
“We have to get our performances right,” said Solomons. “We did not play well last week. Our decision-making was poor and our catch/pass skills poor and our line-out malfunctioned. It is probably not a bad thing that the focus shifts a little bit to a different competition. That could be a positive?”
Both Solomons and Dickinson conceded that the “day job” in the Pro 12 was the club’s main focus this year but nevertheless Edinburgh have selected a strong squad for tonight’s tie.
Dougie Fife gets a rare run at full-back in place of Blair Kinghorn who drops to the bench. Matt Scott pairs up with Will Helu in the centres just as Ben Toolis partners Anton Bresler in the second row while Tom Brown and Damien Hoyland continue on the wings.
Solomons has remained faithful to the same half-backs, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Greig Tonks, who get a chance to make amends after they carried at least some of the can for last weekend’s loss. The pair probably played a little too much rugby in their own half of the pitch, not a charge you can usually level at Solomons’ sides, and you imagine that they won’t make the same mistake this evening.
In the forwards the acquisition of Hardie means Edinburgh now boast two thirds of the back row that helped the Highlanders lift the Super Rugby title a few months ago even if the flanker missed the last couple of rounds with an injury. No 8 Nasi Manu starts from the bench. In the absence of David Denton, who has moved to Bath to fill Sam Burgess’s boots, Hardie becomes even more important.
“John is ready to play,” said his South African coach. “He has had that two weeks with the squad. He does have that experience of the World Cup. The international experience is probably the best experience he has had. He has played a lot of Super Rugby games but that is not the same as playing Test match rugby in the World Cup. Bringing that experience he has generally and particularly in the World Cup will be very valuable to us. What I have noticed is that John has a terrific work ethic. He is very intelligent and professional about knowing what he has to do.
“He has made a point of making sure he understands what his role is with us. I have been impressed by the fact he is also a guy who just comes in and gets on with it.
“I have yet to find out whether he is a talker on the field as this is his first game but so far in practice he has let his deeds do the talking. Remember he has just come in and a lot of blokes are quiet at first when they come in.”
While French teams usually use this competition to blood the “espoirs” (hopefuls) it looks like Grenoble at least are taking things seriously which is good news for the integrity of the Challenge Cup even if it means a tough shift tonight for Edinburgh. “They play the game at pace, they will be looking to put pace on the ball and they will have strength in depth.” said Solomons. “They can be successful in the Challenge Cup.”
You could say the same thing about Edinburgh – it should be a corker.