Scotland flanker John Hardie returns for Edinburgh against Scarlets at BT Murrayfield tonight in a game they are desperate to win to kick-start their Guinness Pro12 campaign.
With Leinster visiting next week, it is vital Alan Solomons’ side get on the board tonight following a 34-16 opening defeat at Cardiff and the head coach has made five changes to his starting line-up.
The only injury-forced one sees Magnus Bradbury come in at No.8 in place of Nani Masu, who is out for four to six weeks with a rib injury. Elsewhere, Michael Allen replaces fellow Ulsterman Rory Scholes on the wing and Ben Toolis is preferred to Fraser McKenzie in the second row.
The return to availability of New Zealand-born duo Phil Burleigh and Hardie sees them brought back in place of Solomoni Rasolea and Hamish Watson respectively.
Hardie returns after an extended summer break following his brutal run from Super Rugby pre-season early last year right through a World Cup, Six Nations and full Pro12. A visa glitch delayed his return from a six-week break in New Zealand and, although he featured in the final pre-season game against Newcastle Falcons, Solomons opted to leave him out of the squad for last weekend’s opener.
But the flanker is back and raring to go this evening. “I was knackered [by the end of last season],” admitted Hardie yesterday. “I wanted to keep going but I think it was more a mental side of things. I needed to have a rest.
“It was time for a bit of a break. It’s done my body wonders. It was good to get back to New Zealand and spend time with family.”
Last season may have proved gruelling but it was a big one for the 28-year-old openside flanker as he exploded on to the Test scene with a series of eye-catching displays for Scotland. This season could be even bigger, with the former Otago Highlander being tipped as a possible Lion back in New Zealand next summer.
“Yes it’s a big year and one I’m looking forward to,” he said. “It brings challenges with Edinburgh. There is competition here with Hamish Watson playing really well.
“If I’m lucky enough to play for Scotland then those cherries might come on top. But my first priority is with Edinburgh. I’ve got to get back up to speed and where I want to be.”
Solomons is sure Hardie can have an impact tonight. “He looked really underdone from a conditioning point of view against Newcastle,” said the South African.
“I think he needs an opportunity to play. Hamish has done really well for us, but John needs the opportunity and I think he’s ready to play. He’s trained really hard last week and this week, and I’m sure the extra week’s conditioning will show this week.”
Solomons said tonight’s changes were a mix of planned rotation and a reaction to last week’s defeat.
“I would say if John was fit I would do a rotation there, so that’s definitely one,” explained the coach. “Phil Burleigh was out last week and I would have probably given him a start this week, so that’s two.
“Michael Allen gets a run on the wing. We’ve got to look at our wing options, because Rory has come to us at full-back and has played on the wing, but Will Helu and Damien Hoyland are still out and Alex Northam is not yet ready to play.
“In the forward pack, Ben Toolis has done really well and is on merit. Fraser McKenzie is coming on, but it takes time to get back to where you were when you haven’t played for a long time.”
Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac has made seven changes, three of them positional, from the side that lost 23-13 at home to Munster last weekend.
Lions centre Jonathan Davies is named in the centre alongside fellow Welsh internationalist Scott Williams as he makes his first competitive start for the region since May 2014 following his return from Clermont.
Olympic sevens silver medalist James Davies makes a return to the openside flank after his heroics in Rio with Scotland’s John Barclay moving to No.8.
Edinburgh: Glenn Bryce; Michael Allen, Sasa Tofilau, Phil Burleigh, Tom Brown; Duncan Weir, Nathan Fowles; Rory Sutherland, Ross Ford, WP Nel, Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist (c), Jamie Ritchie, John Hardie, Magnus Bradbury. Replacements: Stuart McInally; Allan Dell, Kevin Bryce, Fraser McKenzie, Hamish Watson, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Blair Kinghorn, Solomoni Rasolea.