THE hype that has built up around tomorrow evening’s “battle of the nines” was jokingly compared to the Mayweather-Pacquiao super-fight by one Edinburgh player this week, but it is showing no signs of fazing Sam Hidalgo-Clyne in the slightest.
The 21-year-old Edinburgh scrum-half – an impressive character both on and off the pitch – seems to have spent weeks fielding questions about the upcoming showdown with his Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw in the European Challenge Cup final. Even before it was even confirmed that Edinburgh would face Gloucester at Twickenham Stoop he was being asked about the mere possibility of it.
The player has answered all of these queries politely and thoughtfully and now, at last, it is fast approaching seconds out time. But before combat begins, once more with feeling.
“It’s not about me playing Greig, it’s about Edinburgh playing Gloucester,” smiles Hidalgo-Clyne as that question comes at him again. “I play better when I focus on the team. Knowing each other does come into it. But, once you get into the game, you forget about it.
“If you are worrying about one of the opposition, if you’re trying to get at him a bit more, it takes something away from your game.”
Much of the intrigue surrounding the clash stems from the fact it comes with a classic “master versus pupil” edge. Hidalgo-Clyne deputised for Laidlaw off the bench in all five of the Six Nations games and is adamant that he still sees himself as carrying an L-plate on his back alongside the No 9.
“Learning from Greig, especially in the Six Nations, has helped me greatly,” he insists “And I’m taking that into my game now. The knowledge of his game is huge. For example, he knows exactly when a winger is in and he can put it over the corner. His game management is brilliant.
“I want to adapt that into my game, with the speed of my game, learning how to control a game like he can. At the start of the season, I was a bit erratic – a lot of pace, but there was no control of the game.
“Now I want to bring in his side to it, where I can slow things down, control things, manage people and make my forwards feel relaxed around me.”
Hidalgo-Clyne is aware that his electric displays since returning to Edinburgh from the Six Nations whitewash has people talking about the real possibility of a starting spot in the national XV come the World Cup, but quite understandably that is not speculation he will entertain… at least not in public.
He said: “That’s not in my control, it’s up to the coach [Vern Cotter]. Greig is the captain. I have to just keep pushing and get on his heels. This is a good opportunity for me to ask questions – but that’s all.”
This won’t be the first time this year that Hidalgo-Clyne has been joined by a familiar face at the side of the scrum. He went head-to-head with his old Merchiston Castle school pal and Scotland age-grade team-mate Scott Steele in the Challenge Cup quarter-final win at London Irish – an experience he has learned lessons from.
“It’s always good fun to have some banter with someone you know. But I actually learned from that,” he explains. “This game won’t be so much like that, trying to get at each other.
“I probably didn’t play as well as I could have in that London Irish game because we were both trying to find each other; there was so much hype surrounding myself and Scott that day.
“That was probably my first outing against someone I know really well. I’m glad I got it out of my system, it’s been and gone. I’ll take that into this week.
“Everyone says I’m going to go out for Greig but it’s not like that at all. I’m not there to play for me, I’m there to play for the club.
“Ultimately, we need to win this game. I need to do whatever I can. If that means not chasing somebody, that’s what I’ll do.”
The scrum-half is well aware that his ability to impose himself on the game in the way he managed so brilliantly in the semi-final win over Newport Gwent Dragons is in the hands of his pack.
“Our forwards are on form and on fire, which is great,” he said. “If we can slow the play down and get a lot of mauls, that will be great. As much as we talk about keeping it tight, though, when it’s on, it’s on.
“Gloucester will have a tougher pack than anything we’ve faced in the last couple of weeks, so our forwards will really need to front up.
“That Munster game [a 34-3 home Pro12 defeat on 11 April]when the forwards didn’t do so well and they mauled against us pretty easily, that gave us a kick up the backside and got our boys firing again over the past couple of weeks.”
Firing, he hopes, all the way to a glittering European prize which would provide such a welcome fillip for Scottish rugby. Hidalgo-Clyne said: “‘Of course we’re aware of the history. That’s brilliant, being the first Scottish team to reach a European final. But we don’t want to be the ones who got there only to fall short. We want to go the whole way.”
Laidlaw and Gloucester will have plenty to say about that but, whatever the result tomorrow, you feel Hidalgo-Clyne is a player made for the big stage.