Scots caps on back burner as Phil Burleigh focuses on Edinburgh

Phil Burleigh expects a tough test for Edinburgh against Leinster on Friday. Pic: SNS
Phil Burleigh expects a tough test for Edinburgh against Leinster on Friday. Pic: SNS
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When Phil Burleigh signed for Edinburgh from the Otago Highlanders back in June 2014, the buzz phrase of the time – “project player” – was not mentioned.

Unlike Josh Strauss, WP Nel and, before them, Tim Visser, the Kiwi had not been recruited with the aim of exploiting rugby’s controversial three-year residency rule. However, after penning a two-year extension last year the 30-year-old, along with his Namibia-born team-mate Anton Bresler, now finds himself qualified and was invited by Scotland coach Gregor Townsend to join the squad at their recent St Andrews get-together.

The rule is due to be extended to five years after the 2019 World Cup and Burleigh, who has great grandparents from Aberdeen, is grateful to now have a shot at representing his ancestral and now adopted homeland.

The Christchurch-born inside centre, who can also cover stand-off, explained: “They approached me. I knew it was coming around although I’d forgotten that the three years would come that quickly. Gregor got in touch with me and told me so I was delighted.

“It’s something I guess I developed while have been here. I guess I’ve immersed myself right into the culture. I’m here now and really enjoying it and feel a part of it.

“I’ve been around everywhere. My great grandparents were born in Aberdeen and obviously went to New Zealand at some point, so I do have Scottish blood in me. I’ve really enjoyed myself here. Edinburgh – the city itself – is brilliant.”

Burleigh returned from injury to make his first appearance of the season in Friday’s 28-8 loss at the Scarlets and knows that impressing new Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill is a more pressing priority than catching Townsend’s eye at present.

“I’m extremely proud to have made that initial squad but now I’ve got to do a lot more and my concentration at the moment is with Edinburgh,” he said.

A familiar face is now a rival for the Edinburgh No 12 shirt after former Crusaders centre Robbie Fruean’s arrival in the summer.

“I played against Robbie quite a few times,” said Burleigh, who also played Super Rugby for the Chiefs. “We both knew each other. I think we will get the chance to play together at some stage, me at 12 and him at 13. He is adapting to it all, getting his body right, and there will come a time when there’s rotation and we will both be involved.

“He has been really good. He brings a fresh look at our backline, that’s for sure. He’s a big brute, about 20 or 30kg heavier than me, and still just as quick. When he’s on form and has a few minutes under the belt then he will be a good weapon for us.

“He has played most of his rugby at 13. He is just getting used to different things you have to do 12 if he is going to play there.”

After being thrown back in the deep end against the star-studded champions in Llanelli, Burleigh is now braced for another formidable away match at Leinster in Dublin on Friday.

The Irish province were beaten 38-19 by Cheetahs in Bloemfontein at the weekend and the centre is fully aware that the Lions quintet of Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Sean O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton could all be thrown at Edinburgh for their first club appearances of the season.

“It is going to be another step up,” said Burleigh. “We have got to get a couple things right, execute a couple of things in our game, in attack. I think we now have the physicality so I don’t think we need to raise that much, but there are definitely a couple of things there in attack, skills and execution, that we need to get right against a good side.

“They will make changes in their team after a trip to South Africa and coming off a loss.”