Edinburgh Rugby coach Richard Cockerill has no problem selecting players who are leaving the club in the summer if their inclusion strengthens the Capital side’s bid for honours.
Cockerill has drafted in three of those on his list of impending departures as his men look to extend a six-match winning run in the Guinness PRO14 when they take on an Ulster team that is also vying for a top-three spot at BT Murrayfield tonight (7.35pm).
A win will ensure the Capital outfit reaches the play-off phase of the competition for the first time, with a trip to face Munster in the quarter-finals the likely prize for doing so. Victory would also secure a berth in the European Champions Cup next season.
Cockerill has made six changes to the side that exited the European Challenge Cup at the hands of Cardiff Blues last week.
The most significant of those is a revamped half-back pairing that reunites Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Duncan Weir, who are preferred to Nathan Fowles and Jaco van der Walt. Phil Burleigh returns at centre for his first start since January, while three alterations to the pack see Simon Berghan given the nod at tight-head, Ben Toolis is named at lock and Jamie Ritchie is favoured in the back row, where John Hardie is an injury-enforced absentee.
Hidalgo-Clyne, Weir and Burleigh will all be plying their trade elsewhere next season, but Cockerill is adamant that they still have a role to play at Edinburgh, with Hidalgo-Clyne replacing Fowles – who was deemed to have underperformed last week – and Weir considered best suited to the likely damp weather conditions.
“You pick what you think is the best team for this week,” he said. “My focus is purely on what is the best team for this match. Just because guys are leaving, that is irrelevant.”
The changes are Cockerill’s attempt to get a response from a squad that he admits had their weaknesses exposed against the Welsh outfit last time out.
“We weren’t good enough physically or tactically,” he added with reference to the 20-6 loss. “We need to be more comfortable in our own skin playing in big games.”
However, he sees tonight’s encounter as an opportunity to atone for the disappointment.
“We’ve prepared well. We need a reaction from last week because we didn’t perform the way we know we can. We need to learn to turn up on the big occasion,” he stated, before looking ahead to this latest big fixture that will test the mental strength of his players. “It will be nervy and edgy. We’ve got to learn to cope with that.
“But we’ve been on good form and we’ve had one poor performance among a lot of good ones.”
Ulster, whose recent media coverage has focused on off-field events, must win to prolong their aspirations of remaining in the race for a play-off spot. The visitors are boosted by the inclusion of several international stars and will be captained by hooker Rory Best, who returns to action after leading Ireland to a NatWest Six Nations Grand Slam.
“Their off-field problems have been well documented. That distress sometimes makes teams stronger. If they perform, they are more than capable of beating us,” warned Cockerill.
And while he has not ruled out further signings should suitable individuals become available, the coach has announced what is the final stage of his planned recruitment for next season with the arrival of Pierre Schoeman, a South African loose-head prop. The 23-year-old joins from Super Rugby side the Bulls.
Edinburgh Rugby: B Kinghorn, D Fife, M Bennett, P Burleigh, D van der Merwe, D Weir, S Hidalgo-Clyne, J Lay, S McInally, S Berghan, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, J Ritchie, B Mata. Subs: N Cochrane, R Sutherland, WP Nel, L Carmichael, C du Preez, S Kennedy, J van der Walt, C Dean
Ulster Rugby: C Piutau, L Ludik, D Cave, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney, A Warwick, R Best, T O’Toole, M Dalton, I Henderson, M Rea, N Timoney, J Deysel. Subs: R Herring, T O’Hagan, R Ah You, A O’Connor, S Reidy, D Shanahan, A Curtis, T Bowe.