Richard Cockerill has picked a strong side to take on an Ulster squad that sits just three points above them in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14. It could prove a vital match in terms of play-off places but the two teams still have to play each other in Edinburgh.
Ulster are reeling from the loss of head coach Les Kiss because of poor results and they are in danger of losing his replacement Jono Gibbes to the Wallabies who are said to want the former All Black as forwards’ coach.
Meanwhile, Ulstermen Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are in court facing a charge of rape, with lurid details emerging every day. Not that it affected Ulster last weekend because they ran out 59-10 winners over the hopeless Southern Kings.
Edinburgh look strong across the board but especially in the third row of the scrum where Kiwi flanker John Hardie makes his first start for the club since that three-month suspension for disciplinary reasons.
He is partnered with Fijian Villiame Mata and Scotland reject Cornel du Preez who copped a lot of flak for his performance in Cardiff and has since been dropped from the international squad.
“I think it is a good back row,” said Cockerill. “They are all international players. It will be tough so we have picked a big and physical back-row to start the game.
“Jamie Richie has an ankle injury, [Magnus] Bradbury will cover second and back row. We have a combative pack to start the game, some good players to come on and John (Hardie) and Cornell maybe have a point to prove.
“John is working hard, he is fit, he is fresh and he is desperate to get out there and prove how good he is. (We are) Delighted to have him back, he will give us that hard edge while Cornel has something to prove from the national team and (Villiame) Mata has been in good form.”
How far, Cockerill was quizzed, before Hardie is back to the level he was during the Rugby World Cup three years ago when he was a firm fixture in the Scotland starting XV?
“I think he is pretty much there,” the coach replied. “I think he just wants to get out there and play, he is short of match fitness but he gives you what he gives you. He is a good ball carrier for a smallish man and he is very good in the tackle and over the ball which we will need. I am looking forward to seeing how he goes.”
Samoan prop Jordan Lay gets a start alongside Murray McCallum, try scorer against Leinster, and veteran Neil Cochrane. Fraser MacKenzie is partnered with the highly promising Lewis Carmichael in the second row.
The backs boast a big back three with Dougie Fife continuing to deputise for Blair Kinghorn at full-back while twin giants, Welshman Jason Harries and South African Duhan van der Merwe, fill the wing spots.
In fact the one area of the field where Ulster may be licking their lips is in the midfield. Ulster field the muscular centre pairing of Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey, the latter a 6ft 3in and 18st giant, so there are no prizes for guessing where the home side expect to make inroads, especially if the heaven’s open.
Against them Edinburgh field the relative lightweight duo of Chris Dean, playing inside centre for a change, and Mark Bennett who has stood out since his return from that long-term knee injury and claimed the winning try against Leinster last Friday.
“Mark’s very good,” said Cockerill. “He’s still finding his feet, still getting his match sharpness but he’s been carrying the ball really well and he’s a very good defender who tackles really hard.
“The more he plays the better he will get, so I don’t think he’s back to his very best yet but he will be. He’s sat out for a long time and is still finding his way, but for Mark finding his way is still playing pretty well.”
Bennett is certainly looking good enough to replace Chris Harris on the Scotland bench when England come calling at BTMurrayfield next weekend. The Newcastle Falcon looked horribly ill at ease in Cardiff and was not used against France, suggesting that Gregor Townsend’s faith in him is a little shaky, which begs the obvious question why pick him when Bennett is available?
Cockerill will want to win this match in Belfast but losing isn’t a disaster, especially if Edinburgh snaffle a bonus point or two. There are six rounds of matches left after this weekend’s action and Ulster have four of those games on the road, Edinburgh enjoy four at home. They are right in the hunt.
“Look, they have brought some good players back in this week and they are at home and it will be sold out and there will be a big atmosphere, but it a really good test for ourselves,” said Cockerill when asked about Ulster. “We have to earn the right to push for play-offs, if we lose, the play-off hopes are not done but if we win we are in the box seat and we are looking forward to it.
“They play very direct,” the coach continued, “they are a combative team. We have to be strong to stay in the battle and if we do that then we can possibly get something out of it.”
Edinburgh: 15. Dougie Fife; 14. Jason Harries, 13. Mark Bennett, 12. Chris Dean, 11. Duhan van der Merwe; 10. Jaco van der Walt, 9. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne; 1. Jordan Lay, 2. Neil Cochrane, 3. Murray McCallum, 4. Fraser McKenzie (c), 5. Lewis Carmichael, 6. Bill Mata, 7. Jamie Ritchie, 8. Cornell du Preez. Subs: 16 Cameron Fenton; 17. Rory Sutherland; 18. Elliot Millar Mills; 19. Magnus Bradbury; 20. Luke Crosbie; 21. Nathan Fowles; 22. Duncan Weir 23. Glenn Bryce.