EDINBURGH coach Alan Solomons reckons he is missing as many as ten frontline players for this afternoon’s first pre-season friendly against Leicester Tigers at the Greenyards, including the influential international triumvirate of Grant Gilchrist, Dave Denton and Matt Scott.
Other missing men include WP Nel, Mike Coman, Al Dickinson, Stuart McInally, Grayson Hart and Anton Bresler (the recent signing from South African Super Rugby franchise the Sharks).
But whereas this would have caused the coach a major selection headache during his debut season as Edinburgh coach, the wily South African says he is delighted about getting the opportunity to demonstrate how much strength in depth has been added to the squad during the summer.
“It’s the first game of the season and the purpose of this match is really about giving every player who is fit and available to play an opportunity to have a minimum of 20 minutes game time. We have between eight or ten of what you would term frontline players not available for this game, and yet we are putting out literally two teams, which is a positive in terms of the depth of the squad,” he said at yesterday’s team announcement.
“I look at it as a positive thing. It is a long season. Apart from Matt Scott and David Denton, who are frontline players with long injuries, everyone is going to be back around mid to late September. The season is a marathon and a positive thing is that this presents opportunities for other players, particularly our young guys.”
Solomons added that Edinburgh’s improvement over the summer has come on two fronts.
Firstly, through the recruitment of a blend of seasoned campaigners such as full-back Nick McLennan from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand and lock McKenzie back after three years playing in the English Premiership, alongside a number of exciting home-grown prospects such as centre Chris Dean and prop Rory Sutherland.
Secondly, but just as importantly, Solomons says he is now satisfied that his players have been “functionally conditioned” to last a whole season playing the type of rugby which he demands from them.
“Last year was challenging. Now, I’m used to the environment and I feel we have better strength in depth than we had last year. We have had a preseason together, which is really nice,” said the 64-year-old.
“I think that the conditioning has been good. One of the challenges that the coaching team faced was bleeding in players who have been injured or had operations or have been away on national tours back. At one point we had 22 players in that boat which is pretty much 50 per cent of our squad, but I believe we are in pretty good shape now and we won’t be rushing anyone back too soon.”
Solomons said that he had no qualms about throwing Dean and Sutherland in at the deep end against a genuine European powerhouse.
“They’ve got to get opportunities. Rory and Chris have been practising with us and what finer opportunity to get some game time than against Leicester. Rory has got Ross Ford as his hooker, who is a very experienced player and a very good scrummager; while Chris has Andries Strauss, who has a lot of experience, beside him. We’ve got some good young players and we’ve got to give them opportunities.”
Dean himself said: “It’s a massive privilege to play against a team of the calibre of Leicester and I’m really excited about it. The nerves are obviously creeping in as well, but I’m sure it is going to be great. There are a lot of big names in their side, but it’s also an opportunity for us to start putting all the things we’ve worked in during pre-season into action,” said the 20 year old.
Dean was first introduced to rugby as a stand-off in his native North Berwick, before moving into the back-row when he left primary school and enrolled at Edinburgh Academy. After leaving school he was snapped up on an EDP contract and spent two years touring the world with the Scotland Sevens squad.
It was only last season that he made the switch to centre, and played there for the Scotland Under-20 team during their Junior World Cup campaign in June. By this point he had already been offered a full-time contract with Edinburgh.
“I’ve maybe only played nine games of 15-a-side rugby in the last two years, but I’ve had a lot of experience on the Sevens circuit, which has been awesome. I think that has been a really good development tool,” he added.
“The Junior World Cup really did me good in terms of getting me some game time in the centre playing against quality opposition, and coming into the Edinburgh squad and being involved in this pre-season has been great. I’ve done a lot of training now and it is time to get out there and see if I can do it for real.”