Alan Solomons watched his new side go down narrowly to Premiership side Northampton at Franklins Gardens last week and will see them for the first time on Scottish soil tonight, against Newcastle in a rare and eagerly anticipated professional match in the Borders. Solomons welcomed the chance to encourage more Borderers to follow Edinburgh, while acknowledging that Newcastle are also using this as a missionary trip, but admitted that he was only getting to know the capital squad himself after arriving two weeks ago.
His defence coach Omar Mouneimne flew in just this week and, while the club has announced the signing of southern hemisphere props in recent weeks, they were not Solomons’ men, but scouted by Scott Johnson, the SRU’s director of rugby.
So Solomons has spent a hectic first fortnight studying Edinburgh, the squad and the city, and forming training schedules and gameplans for the friendlies and next week’s opening league match away to Munster.
His cause is not helped by 12 players being in the treatment room with Nikki Walker and Tim Visser, the team’s main finishers, among a handful of core talent unavailable for the trip to Cork. Walker is still recovering from a shoulder operation undergone at the end of last season and Visser from the painful foot problem plantar fasciitis, with which he apparently played through the second half of last season.
Capped forwards Stevie Lawrie and Ross Rennie are out at least until the autumn, Stuart McInally is recovering from a knee injury, Ben Atiga is facing a possible knee operation, new scrum-half Grayson Hart injured an ankle in the warm-up at Northampton and his debut has been put back for around a month and now Matt Scott is out for four to six weeks with an ankle injury suffered at
Solomons has spoken to Gregor Townsend about a reserve fixture with Glasgow in the coming weeks, which would provide opportunities both for the likes of Visser and Walker to regain some match fitness and others to push their case.
But there is growing strength in depth in Edinburgh and, by making effectively only one change – Nick de Luca moves to inside centre for the injured Scott, which means Dougie Fife steps in to centre and Jack Cuthbert takes his place on the wing – though Tom Brown is poised to replace Lee Jones if the winger fails to shake off a calf problem, Solomons is seeking some early consistency.
It can be taken as read that the new coaching team are also seeking additional players to fill holes in midfield and the back row, in particular, but 6ft 5in Cuthbert is one bidding to use the opportunity presented by injuries to show that he is more than a fringe player, and perhaps in more than one position.
“I’m delighted to be here and I’m looking forward to playing in Hawick,” he said, after six years at the Recreation Ground. “I’m just taking it one step at a time and looking at this game as an opportunity to impress in an Edinburgh jersey, and that’s what I want to take on for the next few months: to get as much game time as possible and impress.
“I don’t think I’ve been given enough time in any position in my pro career to date to know what my best is and, wherever the opportunity arises, I’ll be happy to take them. Certainly wing and full-back on a short-term basis but, long-term, I’d like to move more infield and getting more ball in hand, at 13 I think.
“I think my skill-set is suited to 13. I actually played most of my rugby at stand-off and 12 when I was younger, but I think with my size and pace I could be a decent weapon at 13, depending on how the coaches here want to use their centres.”
After tough pre-season fitness and conditioning under Neill Potts, and gruelling double sessions since Solomons arrived, they proved in the first hour at Northampton that they are competitive, but fell away in the final quarter.
The obvious challenge tonight is to maintain that level for 80 minutes against an English side aiming to make a mark back in the Premiership, in front of what is hoped to be a voluble Borders crowd with Tyneside and Edinburgh support.
Intriguingly, Newcastle have nearly as many Scots-born players starting (six) as Edinburgh (seven), with Scots Mike Blair, Phil Godman, Scott Lawson, Fraser McKenzie, Scott MacLeod and Ally Hogg all included, and Borderer Scott Wilson, an England under-20 cap from Eyemouth, on the bench.
MacLeod admitted: “It will be a proud moment for me to be playing in front of my loved ones in a terrific occasion for the Borders public.
“The Borders has a strong connection with Newcastle Falcons with a number of players from the region going on to represent the club. It’s an absolute honour for the Borders to be hosting the game, and I know they can’t wait to welcome both sides to Mansfield Park.”
He may live in Hawick, but tonight he is a visitor and exactly 500 years on from Flodden, this could be viewed as a modern-day opportunity for a Scottish outfit to stake a firm claim on Borders territory against a raiding army from south of the Border, albeit with less blood.
Edinburgh Rugby team to play Newcastle Falcons at Mansfield Park, Hawick (kick-off 7.45pm)
15 Greig Tonks
14 Jack Cuthbert
13 Dougie Fife
12Nick De Luca
10 Piers Francis
9 Greig Laidlaw CAPTAIN
1 Alasdair Dickinson
2 Ross Ford
3 WP Nel
4 Grant Gilchrist
5 Izak van der Westhuizen
6 Sean Cox
7 Roddy Grant
8 David Denton
16 Aleki Lutui
17 Lewis Niven
18 Geoff Cross
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Hamish Watson
21 Sean Kennedy
22 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
23 Tom Brown
24 Dimitri Basilaia
Unavailable through injury: Alex Allan (leg), Ben Atiga (knee), Grayson Hart (ankle), Steven Lawrie (back), Robin Hislop (leg), Chris Leck (shoulder), Stuart McInally (knee), Ross Rennie (shoulder), Matt Scott (ankle), Tim Visser (foot), Alun Walker (hamstring), Nikki Walker (shoulder).
Players released to the RBS Premiership: Alex Black (Edinburgh Accies), Gregor Hunter (Hawick), Harry Leonard (Melrose), Robert McApline (Hawick), Perry Parker (Melrose).