Hints of experimentation and adventure as Mike Blair prepares for competitive bow as Edinburgh head coach

Twenty years after making his debut for the club, Mike Blair will take charge of Edinburgh for the first time in a competitive fixture this afternoon when the Scarlets come calling.

Friday, 24th September 2021, 10:00 pm
Edinburgh head coach Mike Blair says he will make decisions in consultation with his assistants and players. Picture: Bruce White/SNS

The head coach is unsure whether he will feel nervous but is adamant he has faith in his assistants and players as they embark on a new era for the capital side.

The freshly christened DAM Heath Stadium is close to selling out for the United Rugby Championship opener and there is a sense of optimism among supporters who have bought season tickets in record numbers.

Blair has picked an experienced team to face the Scarlets but there are also hints of experimentation and adventure about the selection. Blair Kinghorn starts at stand-off, with the coach backing the 24-year-old to spark the Edinburgh attack despite his relative inexperience in the playmaker’s role.

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Ben Vellacott will make his competitive debut for Edinburgh against the Scarlets. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

Ben Vellacott, the summer signing from Wasps, will be alongside him at scrum-half as Blair looks to add some zip against the side that finished two places and ten points ahead of Edinburgh last season.

There is plenty of pace behind the halfbacks, with Darcy Graham and Damien Hoyland filling the wing berths, but the trick will be making sure they get the ball. It didn’t always happen last year under Richard Cockerill. Blair is expected to play quicker rugby than his predecessor but the new man is not blind to the impact the weather might have.

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It’s the former Edinburgh scrum-half’s first gig as a head coach after spells as an assistant at Glasgow and Scotland under Dave Rennie and Gregor Townsend. There was little sense of trepidation as he spoke about the occasion but he acknowledged he was now on the frontline.

“When I was doing the Glasgow and Scotland stuff I wouldn’t generally get nervous before a game but of course there you’re behind a Dave Rennie or a Gregor who is leading things,” he said.

“I guess there is a little bit more of a focal point around the head coach. I’m confident in what we’re trying to do and I’m confident the players know what we’re trying to do and I think I’ve definitely seen enough in the last couple of weeks to allow us to be in a good position to perform in the game.”

Collaboration will be key for Blair who is keen to involve players in the decision-making process, something that wasn’t always apparent under Cockerill.

“I trust my assistant coaches’ opinions so the decisions I make aren’t purely my thoughts,” said Blair. “It’s done in consultation with the coaches and often with the players as well. They’re the ones on the pitch so they’ll feed back what they’re feeling, hearing and seeing.

“You can watch the game from distance and see the big picture but what players feel carries a lot more weight than what something looks like from 30 metres away. It’s important to get their input as well. There will be plenty conversations before any decisions are made.”

Bill Mata has recovered from a foot injury and will start at No 8 and there is a debut to Henry Immelman at full-back. New recruit James Lang is on the bench as Blair goes with on-form Mark Bennett and Cammy Hutchison as his starting centres.

Edinburgh: Henry Immelman; Darcy Graham, Mark Bennett, Cammy Hutchison, Damien Hoyland; Blair Kinghorn, Ben Vellacott; Pierre Schoeman, Stuart McInally, Lee Roy Atalifo, Marshall Sykes, Grant Gilchrist (c), Jamie Ritchie, Luke Crosbie, Viliame Mata.

Substitutes: Dave Cherry, Boan Venter, WP Nel, Jamie Hodgson, Connor Boyle, Henry Pyrgos, Jaco van der Walt, James Lang.

Scarlets: Johnny McNicholl; Ryan Conbeer, Jonathan Davies (c), Scott Williams, Steff Evans; Dan Jones, Kieran Hardy; Rob Evans, Ryan Elias, Samson Lee, Aaron Shingler, Sam Lousi, Blade Thomson, Dan Davis, Sione Kalamafoni.

Substitutes: Marc Jones, Phil Price, WillGriff John, Tom Price, Tom Phillips, Dane Blacker, Sam Costelow, Ioan Nicholas.

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)

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