ALAN Solomons must feel that he needed tonight’s match like he a hole in the head. He has had to drag his injury ravaged squad on a marathon nine-and-a-half hour odyssey to the south-west of France to try their luck against the best performing team in the Top 14 at the moment.
Ostensibly, Edinburgh are looking to get their Challenge Cup campaign off to a flying start against Bordeaux-Begles, but the reality is that Europe’s second-tier competition lacks the prestige to be anything more than a curious sideshow to the far more pressing task of becoming a credible force in the Guinness Pro 12.
Solomons would never publicly acknowledge that this is an exercise in damage limitation, but, in truth, he will be quietly delighted if his team emerge from this trip with no new significant injuries and their fragile self-esteem still intact.
“If you look at their recent results and watch their games, they smashed Clermont and they smashed Castres, who were in the Finals last year – so, at the moment, they are riding high as one of the top teams in France in terms of form,” he said.
“If we were going to Paris, then it’s quite easy because it’s a main route, but it’s not a main route.
“So, unfortunately, we have to leave here at five in the morning [on Thursday], to get in at about half-past two, and try to get our practice straight away, which will help a little bit.
“But what can you do? If we took a later flight we could end up arriving there very late at night, which would make it very difficult. We’d probably not be able to have a captain’s run. We’ve just got to take it as another challenge for us to face.”
“We’ve got the challenge of playing one of the top teams in France, playing them away from home, and having a difficult travel schedule,” added Solomons. “But we’ve got to look at it in a positive way, as an exciting challenge for us.” Injuries mean that Solomons does not even have the luxury of being able to work a full rotation policy to give a number of his fringe players some valuable game time whilst, simultaneously, allowing a few of his key men a breather off so that they can be fresh for the resumption of league action in two weeks’ time.
He has only been able to bring in four new faces to the team which picked up only their second Pro12 victory of the season against the Dragons last weekend, and one of those changes is enforced. Cornell du Preez picked up a nasty ankle injury in that match, which looks certain to keep him side-lined for several months at least. He is replaced by Tomas Leonardi, who will start at blindside flanker, while captain Mike Coman switches to No 8.
Willem Nel replaces John Andress at tight-head prop, Sam Hidalgo Clyne takes over from Sean Kennedy at scrum-half, and Phil Burleigh gets another chance to show what he can do at stand-off in place of Tom Heathcote.
“In certain things, we are limited. We only have two hookers available to us at the moment. Stuart McInally is not ready yet, Neil Cochrane is not ready yet, George Turner is not ready either, and I wouldn’t play [18-year-old] Jake Kerr because, as good a player as I think he is going to be, he is not ready yet,” explained the coach.
‘We only have four loose forwards – Hamish [Watson], Tomas [Leonardi], Mike [Coman] and Roddy [Grant] – so there is no choice there, either.’
At least Solomons can take some comfort in the knowledge that the opposition have made 12 changes to the team which despatched Castres 59-7 last weekend, although he insists that it would be foolhardy to underestimate the Frenchmen regardless of what combination of players they send on to the park.
“No French side playing at home is going to not take it seriously. This is a massive French club and they have massive strength in depth. They are a big, big side, with a lot of pace outside,” he insisted.
Meanwhile, winger Tim Visser has urged his team to keep to a disciplined game-plan against a side he believes will want to play it fast and loose. “They’re flying at the moment. They were quite unknown at the start of the season but they’ve really shown what they can do. If you look at any of the highlights packages coming out of France, it’s ridiculous the tries Bordeaux are scoring and shows the expansive kind of rugby they’re playing,” said the 27-year-old.
“You have to be careful with these kind of teams because you can get dragged into playing the way they want to play and that’s not what we want to do. That might create opportunities for me personally and I could score tries out of it, but it’s not something we can get sucked into because it’s something their game is more suited to.
“We want to play systematically and last weekend showed that, when we do that well, we can win games with it. It’s a different kettle of fish playing Bordeaux-Begles away to Dragons at home so it’ll be a real test of our gameplan.”