Zebre loaded for visit of weakened Edinburgh
The good news for Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill is that several key players have been released from the Scotland squad to play against Zebre in Parma this evening, including skipper and scrum-half Henry Pyrgos, and hooker Ross Ford.
The not-so-good news for the Englishman is that his Italian competitors will be at full strength after Italy coach Conor O’Shea released the bulk of his players who are, nevertheless, scheduled to turn out for the Azzurri against Ireland in Chicago next weekend.
“We’re happy to have any back, really,” was Cockerill’s response when asked about the players released from the Scotland squad. “Obviously, in certain positions, like second row, it leaves us short and [Fraser] McKenzie and [Lewis] Carmichael being injured is just bad luck. We’ve got what we’ve got and we’re happy with that. We’re looking forward to seeing how we go.
“It’s a feather in our cap that so many guys are away on Test duty but obviously we still have games to play. It doesn’t help that Italy have released the majority of their guys but that’s life.
“We’ve double figures of players missing. They’ve got seven or eight of the 23 that will play for Italy next week in their squad. They’ve put a strong side out. They’ve got to play on Friday and get to Chicago by next Saturday, which is an interesting call.
“It very much evens it up if they’ve got a lot of their first-choice players available to play. I think we’ve still got a very good side available.”
The Edinburgh squad isn’t bad but it is unrecognisable from the one that beat Toulon in the European Champions Cup last Saturday and it includes several debutants. Academy lock Jamie Hodgson makes his competitive bow in the starting XV alongside Callum Hunter-Hill whose 14 minutes against Leinster a few weeks back almost makes him the veteran in this company.
The subs bench is stacked with four more potential debutants; Italian prop Pietro Ceccarelli, lock Callum Atkinson, flanker Mungo Mason and stand-off Jason Baggott.
At least Edinburgh’s front row has a solid look to it with South African prop Pierre Schoeman returning from his ban and Simon Berghan getting some game time under his belt; those two propping up either side of a genuine veteran in Ford.
Dougie Fife fills in for Blair Kinghorn at full-back with Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham doing their little and large impression on the wings. Simon Hickey partners Pyrgos at half-back and two Lukes, Hamilton and Crosbie, are on the flanks, either side of the peerless Fijian Bill Mata.
Edinburgh go into this match with their tails up, buoyed not only by their good form over the opening two rounds of European competition but also by flying high in the Opta team statistics. After six rounds of Guinness Pro14 action Cockerill’s side top the league for several key categories; time in possession, goal kicking success (96.3 per cent), lineout success (93.9 per cent) and scrum success (95.92 per cent) all of which should put a smile on the face of their coach, or so you’d imagine.
“They’re just stats, though, aren’t they?” Cockerill argues. “The ultimate stat is whether you win or lose. But it shows we’ve got good players doing good things and we’re solid in our foundations. Whether you’re playing really well or having a slight off day, you have to go back to the foundations of your game.
“We’re obviously pleased that we’re building a solid culture at the club and we’re doing some good things. If the stats show that we’re doing that well and it looks nice, then great. But ultimately we’ve got to try and win games, so it’s a good foundation for us to build from.”
Edinburgh sit fourth in Conference B on 16 points, the same as third-placed Benetton, and they will be keen to establish themselves among the play-off places sooner rather than later.
With the likes of Italian fly-half Carlo Canna and Scots-born lock George Biagi in their line-up, Michael Bradley’s Zebre will be hoping to take advantage of Edinburgh’s greenhorns. “We’ve got to see where we’re at and how some of our players cope,” said Cockerill. “But they’re young Scottish-qualified guys who will hopefully step up to the mark.”
15: Dougie Fife; 14: Darcy Graham, 13: James Johnstone, 12: Chris Dean, 11: Duhan van der Merwe; 10: Simon Hickey, 9: Henry Pyrgos (c); 1: Pierre Schoeman, 2: Ross Ford, 3: Simon Berghan, 4: Jamie Hodgson, 5: Callum Hunter-Hill, 6: Luke Hamilton, 7: Luke Crosbie, 8: Bill Mata. Replacements: 16: David Cherry; 17: Rory Sutherland; 18: Pietro Ceccarelli; 19: Callum Atkinson; 20: Mungo Mason; 21: Sean Kennedy; 22: Jason Baggott; 23: Juan Pablo Secino.