EDINBURGH face arguably their biggest test of the URC season so far when they take on the Ospreys in Swansea today – and they do so without most of their senior internationals.
The league leaders have been given a boost by the release of Scotland squad member Darcy Graham for the match in Wales, as it has been decided he needs game time before potential inclusion in Gregor Townsend’s matchday 23 to face England next Saturday. Mark Bennett, Dave Cherry and Magnus Bradbury have also been cleared to play, but head coach Mike Blair is still without the majority of his first-choice pack, with Pierre Schoeman, Stuart McInally, Grant Gilchrist, Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson all being among the absentees.
Blair admitted that the extent of those absences left his team stretched in certain areas, but he also insisted that there is a growing strength in his squad, who took a four-point lead at the top of the table into this weekend’s round of fixtures. “We’re comfortable with what we’ve got,” he said after selecting a starting line-up that shows eight changes from last week’s excellent Challenge Cup win over Brive. “We’ve got good depth.
“We’re being tested in some areas. If we get injuries in some areas we’ll have to look at how we manage that. But the team we’re able to put out on the pitch, I’m really comfortable with. There’s a mix of experience, youth, overseas players…. I really like the blend we’ve got and trust we’re going to put in a really good performance.”
The Ospreys, who have lost their last five games in all competitions, are without 21 players, largely because of international duty, according to coach Toby Booth. But Gareth Anscombe has been released by Wales and will start on the bench, captain Rhys Webb will offer experienced leadership from scrum-half, and the return of their supporters to the Swansea.com Stadium is sure to inspire them.
With five of his team’s subsequent six matches being aware from home, Blair is all too aware that Edinburgh are about to embark on a very demanding run of fixtures, which possibly explains his decision not to waste any time gazing fondly at that URC table. “I genuinely haven’t (looked at it),” he continued. “Maybe I should have, but we’ll leave it a good few weeks, I think, until we start looking at that.
“We’ve got a tough fixture list over the next couple of months. Six of our next seven fixtures are away – after the Ospreys we’ve got Leinster, Munster, Glasgow, Sharks, Lions. So we’re going to be really tested in this period. But it’s great – it’s a brilliant challenge for us.”
With Emiliano Boffelli moving to the wing to accommodate the returning Henry Immelman at full-back, Edinburgh look particularly strong in the back three, where Graham is set to play a key role. Indeed, according to Blair, the winger has already had a positive effect on the morale of the squad simply by being back in action after a spell on the sidelines over the festive period.
“Darcy was due to play in the Saracens game but he picked up a knock before that, then the two Glasgow games were canned as well. So he’s really only played the game last week.
“I thought he did really well. I would have thought he’s definitely going to be in that big picture with Scotland, so we’re absolutely delighted to get him back to get him some game time. He’s had a great energy about it and he brings that out in the other players as well, so we’re chuffed to have him back.”
As a new head coach trying to keep up the momentum generated by his team during his high successful first few months at the helm, Blair could be forgiven for feeling less than chuffed at having the contents of his squad determined by Townsend. But he knew how the system worked before he agreed to take the job, and he is adamant that – whether we are talking about players forcibly rested or others who have been returned to him by Scotland with the suggestion that they play – all is for the greater good.
“It’s easy to complain about it, but I’m not going to do that,” he concluded. “I see this as a positive and an opportunity for our guys to show what they can do.”
Edinburgh (v Ospreys at Swansea.com Stadium, today 5.15pm): H Immelman; D Graham, T Currie, C Hutchison, E Boffelli; J van der Walt, H Pyrgos (captain); B Venter, D Cherry, A Williams, M Sykes, G Young, M Bradbury, C Boyle, M Kunavula. Substitutes: A McBurney, H Courtney, L Atalifo, J Hodgson, B Muncaster, B Vellacott, C Savala, M Bennett.
Ospreys: M Protheroe; K Giles, M Collins, K Williams, L Morgan; S Myler, R Webb (captain); N Smith, S Parry, T Botha, R Davies, L Ashley, W Griffiths, H Deaves, E Roots. Substitutes: E Taione, R Jones, R Henry, H Sutton, M Morris, R Morgan-Williams, G Anscombe, T Thomas Wheeler.