The game at the DAM Health Stadium will be Watson’s first appearance for Blair’s side since October, and his first anywhere since he was concussed in the Autumn Test against New Zealand the following month. However, he has consistently targeted the start of the Six Nations as a likely return date, and Blair had been pleased by his steady progress.
“He’s been through all the protocols,” the coach said of the 31-year-old openside flanker. “There were no issues with any of the feedback and the scans, so he’s been progressing back in. He’s been running for a long time, and this is the third week he’s been in training with us. He’s in the national squad, so I’d imagine he’d go straight back in there afterwards.”
Van der Merwe, meanwhile, has been out of action since the 1872 Cup games because of an ankle injury, and has also used his time on the sidelines to return to his native South Africa to get married. Blair is convinced that a player with the winger’s specific skill set will be able to get back to the top of his game straight away, which would be particularly heartening news for Scotland coach Gregor Townsend given the continuing absence of another winger, Darcy Graham, and the doubts surrounding full-back Stuart Hogg.
“I’d be pretty confident,” Blair continued. “He’s an athlete first and foremost. He’s fortunate in a way, in that his super strengths are things that he’s very much in control of – his speed, his power, his work rate to get his hands on ball. In some other positions – a 9 or a 10, for example – you’d want guys to sharpen up. But I think positions like the back three can get away with it. And I think Duhan will be fit and firing come next week.”
Watson’s return is one of seven changes made by Blair to his pack from the one that started last week’s Champions Cup win over Saracens, No 8 Bill Mata being the only one to keep his place. In the backs, the one personnel change sees winger Wes Goosen return to the right wing, while Jack Blain moves from there to the left wing to accommodate him.
Pierre Schoeman, Grant Gilchrist and Jamie Ritchie are among the players who are being rested before the start of the Championship, but Blair has still been able to put out a well-balanced and experienced side, which will be captained by Mark Bennett. The Sharks, meanwhile, have also rested some of their best players, including World Cup winners Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am and Eben Etzebeth, but they are still a formidable outfit, especially up front.
Edinburgh go into Saturday’s match in the eighth and last play-off place in the URC table – a place and a point ahead of their visitors, who have two games in hand. After this match they have a three-week break before heading to Wales for a game against the Scarlets.
Edinburgh Rugby: Henry Immelman, Wes Goosen, Mark Bennett (c), James Lang, Jack Blain, Charlie Savala, Ben Vellacott, Boan Venter, Adam McBurney, Murray McCallum, Marshall Sykes, Glen Young, Nick Haining, Hamish Watson, Viliame Mata. Replacements: Dave Cherry, Luan de Bruin, Lee-Roy Atalifo, Jamie Hodgson, Ben Muncaster, Charlie Shiel, Jaco van der Walt, Cammy Hutchison.
Cell C Sharks: Aphelele Fassi, Marnus Potgieter, Francois Venter, Ben Tapuai, Thaakir Abrahams, Curwin Bosch, Grant Williams, Ox Nche, Kerron van Vuuren, Thomas du Toit, Hyron Andrews, Gerbrandt Grobler, James Venter, Henco Venter, Phepsi Buthelezi (c). Replacements: Dan Jooste, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Carlü Sadie, Reniel Hugo, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Cameron Wright, Lionel Cronje, Yaw Penxe.
Referee: James Doleman (NZR, league debut); AR 1: Jonny Perriam (SRU) AR 2: Ru Campbell (SRU); TMO: Eric Gauzins (FFR).
Match details: The DAM Health Stadium, Edinburgh, 5.15pm. Live on Viaplay.