A victory in Cape Town over the Stormers on Saturday evening would rank alongside anything the club has achieved in the professional era and they would be rewarded with a home semi-final against Munster or Ulster. Defeat would bring down the curtain on Mike Blair’s first season in charge.
Regardless of the outcome of the quarter-final, it has been an impressive campaign for the fledgling head coach. Blair says he is learning on the job but he has already forged a new identity for Edinburgh, changing fundamentally the way the club play and imbuing his players with a sense of freedom to express themselves, particularly at their new home.
Blair’s previous post was as an assistant to Gregor Townsend. He is now on the other side of the fence but Scotland continues to occupy his thoughts. One of the requirements of leading Edinburgh is to ensure you are producing players for the national team and it can be a tricky balancing act.
“I am learning throughout the process as I am new to this,” he said. “Things have become apparent as the season has gone on and there are different challenges that face us as the two Scottish pro teams.
“We have to develop Scottish players and want to be successful and that means we have to balance what we are doing because we know having cohesion, having squad selection is beneficial but if we do that week after week we don't get the bump up in training or the understanding that players know that if they train well or do well off the bench they are going to get opportunities. So it is a delicate balancing act but it is nice we have been able to put out a similar selection to the last game we played.”
Fourteen of the XV picked to face the Stormers are Scottish-qualified, with Argentine international full-back Emiliano Boffelli the exception. Not surprisingly, Blair has stuck with the players who saw off Glasgow at Murrayfield, with the only change being an enforced one.
Ben Vellacott suffered a blow to the hip area against the Warriors and is replaced at scrum-half by Henry Pyrgos, who will be up against South African international Herschel Jantjies.
Pyrgos may lack Vellacott’s raw pace but is a shrewd game manager and Blair believes he often doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
“Henry has played well for us this season and is a different type of player to Ben obviously but someone who has real strengths to his game as well,” said the coach.
“Some of Henry’s qualities are not as easy to look at on a stat sheet or to show on a highlights reel. There’s that element of control and understanding that he brings but also his speed to breakdown and speed at getting the ball away is excellent.”
Vellacott may be missing but there remains plenty of speed in the Edinburgh side, particularly in the back three where Boffelli is joined by Darcy Graham and Damien Hoyland. Graham is making his 50th appearance for the club and scored early on when the sides played out a 20-20 draw at the DAM Health Stadium in October. The Hawick man has 22 tries in his 49 appearances for the club, a superb strike rate.
“He’s playing bloody well at the moment and it would be great to see him play even better,” said Blair.
The coach has opted for the subtler skills of Chris Dean over James Lang after the former excelled in the win over the Warriors. Lang is on the bench.
“Inside centre was a difficult selection, and for the Glasgow game as well, but Chris played really well in that 1872 Cup game,” said Blair. “He’s got really good vision, really good distribution, and he’s desperate to play and win for Edinburgh.
“James Lang’s had a brilliant season for us. He’s had a couple of injury niggles but is someone who can come on and make an impact as the opposition tire a little bit.”
The match comes too soon for Stuart McInally, who travelled to South Africa but will not be risked following a calf injury. Dave Cherry will start at hooker, with Adam McBurney on the bench.
Edinburgh have had a full week in Cape Town to acclimatise but they are facing a team in rampant form. The Stormers won their final eight games of the season to finish second in the URC standings. Having kicked off the campaign by losing three of their first five it’s been quite the turnaround for John Dobson’s team who were without their international players during those early weeks in Europe.
Springbok quartet Jantjies, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Marvin Orie were all absent when the Stormers visited Edinburgh in the autumn, as were the URC’s top try-scorer Leolin Zas, the leading points scorer Manie Libbok and pugnacious flanker Deon Fourie. Blair knows Edinburgh will have their work cut out to contain some outstanding individuals.
“It’s going to be an interesting game because we don’t want to fall into the trap where we’ve been training in the sun, and it’s been lovely weather. There will be some dew on the pitch so we’ve got to be conscious of that,” said the coach.
“We’ve got to have some balance to our game so that when we see an opportunity we can take it.
“We need to prevent Stormers from playing. They have some really strong individuals who if we give space to will make the most of it, so we need to cut down their space. We need to look after the ball ourselves and put pressure back on the Stormers.”