Montpellier’s injury crisis may have provided Edinburgh with cause for optimism on their journey to the south of France but coach Richard Cockerill is still viewing the return to Heineken Champions Cup as an oncoming juggernaut.
Vern Cotter, who took up the lucrative Montpellier job after three years in charge of Scotland last season, goes into this afternoon’s Pool 5 opener at Altrad Stadium without star backs like Aaron Cruden, Johan Goosen, Frans Steyn and Nemani Nadolo.
As a former hooker, however, Cockerill shrugged that off and chose to focus instead on the challenge that will be presented by what he views as the most imposing set of forwards in the world.
Anchored by mammoth France No.8 and club captain Louis Picamoles, Cotter will unleash a formidable barrage against many players he worked with during his Scotland stint, though Cockerill expressed confidence his men will be up to the task.
“Of course, I’m confident we can match them, but at some point the attrition of their bodyweight will take its toll. That would be bigger than any pack in world rugby from a size point of view,” said the Edinburgh coach.
“We are going to go at them as hard as we can and we are going to try and make it as tough a contest as possible and when we get the opportunity to kick to the corner and have a crack at them we will and we’ll see where we get to.
“We will be testing ourselves against a very physical team.”
Even despite the high-profile losses, Montpellier’s backline doesn’t look too shabby with the likes of centre Jan Serfontein and wing Benjamin Fall to call upon. Plugging the gap at stand-off, ironically, is Ruan Pienaar, the man who kicked 17 points in Ulster’s 22-19 win over Edinburgh in the 2012 Heineken Cup semi-final – the furthest a Scottish side has ever progressed in the competition.
Cockerill has recalled both wing Dougie Fife and centre Matt Scott from the naughty step following the slipshod performance against Benetton a couple of weeks ago, the former due to injury for Duhan van der Merwe.
“Matt Scott’s played well for us this year in large part, so I think we need physicality for this, it’s going to be a very physical game, so that’s why he gets back in the side,” explained the coach.
“We’ve put out our strongest team every week because we need to be winning league games. I don’t think we’re in a position to rest our best players in the league to make them ready for Europe, that doesn’t make any sense.
“You keep continuity as best you can why keeping a squad relatively fresh with rotation. This is just another game, the reality is, it’s probably not realistic that we’re going to go deep into this competition, the league is very important to us. And while the European Cup is important to us as well, we have to get the balance between being consistent and playing well through the season.”
As Cockerill indicated earlier in the week, 21-year-old winger Darcy Graham keeps his place after an impressive showing in the Guinness Pro14 win over Cheetahs last weekend.
Nadolo’s knee injury means that the 5ft 9in, 12-stone Hawick tyro will actually face an opposite number in the shape of Gabriel N’gandebe, who yields an inch in height and a few pounds in weight to the former Scotland Under-20 player. A far cry from the 6ft 4in, 20-stone behemoth Nadolo.
“Darcy’s a great kid with a great attitude as we saw last week,” said Cockerill. “He plays and gives everything, and he’s desperate to play and show how good he is. He had his opportunity last week and he took it, so he’s been rewarded.
“He’s a young lad who has worked very hard at his game, he’s not a big man but he’s got a big heart and works very hard. Regardless of his size he’s doing good things with and without the ball and is worthy of his place, and we’re looking forward to him stepping up to the next level.”
Cockerill added: “We’ve got a little bit of cavalry off the bench, we are going to need them. That last 25 minutes we are going to need fresh bodies. They are going to come on and hopefully have an impact . But we’ll see, I’m hoping across the board we just all perform to the best of our ability.”
15. Blair Kinghorn; 14. Darcy Graham, 13. James Johnstone, 12. Matt Scott, 11. Dougie Fife; 10. Simon Hickey, 9. Henry Pyrgos; 1. Allan Dell, 2. Stuart McInally (c), 3. WP Nel, 4. Ben Toolis, 5. Grant Gilchrist, 6. Magnus Bradbury, 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Bill Mata. Subs: 16. Ross Ford; 17. Rory Sutherland; 18. Simon Berghan; 19. Luke Hamilton; 20. Jamie Ritchie; 21. Sean Kennedy; 22. Jaco van der Walt; 23. Chris Dean.