The return of club captain Stuart McInally to the Edinburgh team which will take on Munster in Cork this evening was widely anticipated with this game earmarked for his return as soon as his extended post-World Cup break was announced six weeks ago.
However, the news that flanker Hamish Watson, pictured, will also be in the line-up for this crucial clash against the Guinness Pro14 Pool B pacesetters is an unexpected bonus for the capital outfit.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Richard Cockerill’s team given that the unavailability of Jamie Ritchie (shoulder), John Barclay (concussion), Luke Crosbie (side) and Nick Haining (suspension) has left Edinburgh’s generally well-stocked back-row reserves heavily depleted.
“Hamish’s rehab has gone well and he has accelerated through the last part of that very quickly,” explained head coach Cockerill. “He has done everything over the last two weeks and it is a timely return considering a few of the other guys are unavailable.
“He has not played for a long time but he trains well and he is a very fit man, so he is raring to go. He is a very tough operator, on or off the ball, and he is very good over the ball. You get a hard edge from Hamish and he has been a big miss for us in the first part of the year.
“He likes to roll his sleeves up and get in the middle of it. It suits him to come back in and play. He will go as hard as he can and for as long as he can against Munster and see where that takes him.
“We have a lot of good quality back-row players, but it only takes a couple of injuries to get down to just having three or four around to put on the pitch. But we are happy with [Magnus] Bradbury, Watson and [Viliame] Mata for this weekend, while Ally Miller is on the bench and he has played well for us when he has had the opportunity.”
The return of Watson and McInally are the only two changes to the team which started last week’s Challenge Cup clash against Bordeaux.
“It is a very strong side but we have already spoken about the back-row, plus there is WP Nel and Darcy Graham to come back in, so you could change five or six of those guys and still look at it as your best side,” said Cockerill.
“You have Simon Berghan who wants to prove his point. Rory Sutherland is in there on the bench for Jamie Bhatti and they are going to have a good competition to back up Schoeman. The good thing is that we have a real opportunity to mix and match, to rotate, to look after bodies and give guys some proper rest while hopefully not dropping in performance. That is the whole point of trying to build that depth in the squad.”
Earlier this week, Grant Gilchrist spoke about this being a statement season for Edinburgh, but Cockerill is rather more circumspect about the team’s chances of contending for silverware.
“I’m not sure Gilcho should be allowed to talk to you guys any more if he is going to say that,” he suggests. “Look, we have to keep working hard. First year we were fifth and got to the play-offs, last year Europe was a success for us but we dropped off the league, so I think we have a deeper squad and a group of players who are a year older, which always helps, but it is a tough competition.
“We are a team that has never won the competition. In this format, we have been to a quarter-final. We have ambitions to make the play-offs because that is realistic if we get it right. Post that, on any given day we are good enough to beat any team – I am sure of that – but to say it is a statement season and we are going to win the league, I think, is a bit premature at this point.”
Tonight, Cockerill’s team are up against a team who have earned the right to have such lofty ambitions, and that might just have played into Edinburgh’s hands on this occasion.
“They are a big club with a big history who will be expected to fight on both fronts, and it is between European periods, so that is probably not their best side [they have picked],” points out Cockerill. “But, like Leinster, they have great depth, so we take nothing for granted.
“They are at home, they are well coached, and that side has some very good players in it. We are just going to go there and play as well as we can, put our best game on the field.”