Edinburgh head coach Alan Solomons believes the timely return of Scotland flanker John Hardie gives his side a huge boost as they go into the den of the Guinness Pro12 leaders in Dublin tonight.
The top-six hunting Edinburgh face Leinster in the first part of a testing away double header in Ireland, with a trip to Munster before they finish the regular season at home to Cardiff. Hardie returns to the openside berth for the first time since he picked up groin and knee problems at the end of the Six Nations, with young Jamie Ritchie in at blindside.
Melrose Sevens-winning captain Chris Dean comes in at outside centre and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne moves up from the bench to take the scrum-half berth.
Solomons said: “It is good to have [Hardie] back. We were patient. He was not 100 per cent right. He had a bit of a groin injury, a little bit of a neck injury, understandable after the hard Six Nations and we kept him back until he was absolutely right.
“Because we had a bye during the European week, he was able to work the Thursday and Friday with us. We were able to bleed him in well.
“In saying that, Hamish [Watson] has done really well for us but it is good to have John back.
“First of all, he brings a lot of experience. He has played Test rugby for Scotland, in a World Cup and the Six Nations. He has a deep level of experience in Super Rugby. He is also an explosive, 100 per cent player. He gives everything every minute he is out on the pitch and is a good bloke and a good team man. Don’t underestimate experience. You always want to get that blend of youth and experience.”
Edinburgh are currently seventh, one point off the top half where they are desperate to finish and get back into the elite European Champions Cup.
The back-to-back trips to Leinster and Munster present a huge challenge but Solomons does not feel tonight’s game at the RDS is win or bust.
“I am not sure it is as it is so tight. It is difficult to predict,” said the South African. “You look at each game and do what you can to get a result.
“There is a way to go in this competition and it is pretty tight. What is going to be important [tonight] is what happens up front, that is going to be a factor. It will be a very physical contest. Those are the things, we have to do well up front and we have to front up physically.”
Leinster bring back full-back Rob Kearney, who has been out of action since January, while Ian Madigan deputises for Johnny Sexton at stand-off.
“They have a good team and they are not sitting on the top of the log for nothing,” commented Solomons.
The coach revealed that he hopes Gloucester-bound Scotland centre Matt Scott could be in contention for a return at Munster, but he said the injured lock duo of Grant Gilchrist and Fraser McKenzie will not play again this season. Solomons also confirmed that the Edinburgh career of club captain Mike Coman, who will join London Irish in the summer, is over with no hope of his calf tear healing in time.
“Fortunately he did get on to the pitch for his 50th cap,” said Solomons. “He’s been absolutely tremendous for us. First and foremost he’s a really terrific person. He’s an incredibly good captain, he’s a really good rugby player and an all-round good bloke. He’s added hugely to Edinburgh Rugby.
“We’ll miss him, but he’s got an opportunity at London Irish and we all wish him well. He’ll always be welcome here.
“I’m just sorry that he couldn’t finish playing right to the end. I’m chuffed to bits that Matt is looking like he’s fit – I’d like to see him have his last game here against Cardiff. I would have loved Mike to have done that, too.”
Hooker George Turner is the latest player to extend his Edinburgh stay with the 23-year-old signing a new deal to May 2018. Turner joined in 2011 after going to New Zealand on the Macphail scholarship.