Edinburgh coach Mike Blair boosted by return of three key players for URC opener

EDINBURGH coach Mike Blair has revealed that three key players – Bill Mata, Jaco van der Walt and Jamie Hodgson – have been passed fit to play in the team’s opening United Rugby Championship match, at home to Scarlets on Saturday.

Fijian forward Mata did not play in either of his team’s pre-season friendlies, while stand-off Van der Walt and second-row Jamie Hodgson were injured in the loss to Newcastle Falcons and had to sit out Saturday’s win against Benetton. The return of No 8 Mata, in particular, will come as a significant boost to the team – although Blair said a final decision on his inclusion had yet to be made.

“They’ll all be available for selection this week,” Blair said of the trio. “Bill had issues with his foot: he trained pretty fully today so it’s all looking good and we’ll make a final decision later in the week. Jaco has come back well from his head knock.”

Hodgson, who also sustained concussion against Newcastle, could now come back to partner Grant Gilchrist in the second row. He was by and large a back-up player for much of last season, Richard Cockerill’s last at the helm, but has risen to prominence in recent months while senior lock Ben Toolis has been out because of injury.

Toolis, whose partnership in the second row with Gilchrist has long been one of the mainstays of the Edinburgh team, is among the significant names on an injury list which, despite the removal of Mata, Van der Walt and Hodgson, remains uncomfortably lengthy. Meanwhile, openside Hamish Watson is still a few weeks away from playing again after taking a late break following the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

Yet, while he will be some way short of a full-strength selection for his first competitive match at the helm, Blair is in buoyant mood, thanks in large part to the fact that other key players such as Jamie Ritchie and Stuart McInally returned to action in last Saturday’s big win against Benetton. “We’ve got a few long-term injuries still, as well as Hamish missing,” Blair continued. “We’re missing a few. But we were glad to get our internationals back last week to give them a bit of a hit-out.”

The format adopted by tournament organisers for the debut season of the URC is not exactly the most simple in world sport, and Blair admitted he has yet to get to grips fully with how the whole thing works. “Simple answer is I’ve not got my head around it,” he confessed. 

“I’ve looked into it, but for the first couple of games I want a lot of focus to be on just them [the players]. I’m finding there’s lots of things for me to look at like budgets, players, Super6, selection, training and all these different things – and I’m doing pretty much the attack side of things myself at the moment. But I’ll certainly find time to look into the intricacies of the set-up soon.”

As he has previously suggested, Blair’s plan is to find an assistant coach who can shoulder responsibility for some of the attacking duties. Duncan Hodge filled that role under Cockerill but stood down from the position last month. The head coach hinted that he was close to identifying someone for the vacancy, but when asked to specify who he had in mind refused to provide further details. 

“I might have someone lined up,” he said. “I’ve probably given away too much already.”

AB Zondagh, who joined Gregor Townsend’s national set-up as attack coach last month, has already said he would be available to work with both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors. However, Blair’s wording suggests he has in mind someone who is not currently employed by Scottish Rugby. 

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992