A CHANCE to go top of the league always brings its own pressure with it, especially if you discuss or otherwise dwell on the prospect. Which perhaps explains why Mike Blair insisted yesterday that the topic has hardly been raised within the Edinburgh camp as they prepare for this afternoon’s URC game against Cardiff.

A victory, a draw or even two bonus points in defeat would be enough for Blair’s team to take over at the top from Leinster, who are a point clear but have no game this weekend. These are still early stages, and Edinburgh have been blessed by a fixture schedule which allotted them a less arduous run of matches in the opening stretch of the season. Even so, to be in this position is a considerable achievement by the head coach and his squad, who have won five and drawn one of their seven league matches to date, as well as claiming a notable scalp at Saracens last month.   

However, Blair himself is disinclined to read too much into Edinburgh’s excellent form since he took over as head coach in the summer. He claimed yesterday that he had been too disorganised to set specific goals for the season, and insisted that the prospect of taking over at the top had barely been discussed.

“We have touched on it in previous weeks about maintaining our standards,” he said. “I want us to be driving our own performances and not necessarily thinking where that will put us in the league. 

“If we continue to go the way we’re going, we’re going to push teams in the top four. We have a tougher second half, but it’s great we have some points on the board.

“I don't really think about these things,” he continued when asked if he had expected such a bright beginning to his tenure. “I’m not that organised to think about where we should be or where we would want to be. Not being too goal-orientated or not looking too far ahead and just trying to get better each week is my emphasis.”

Edinburgh’s hopes of making that weekly improvement have stalled of late due to the postponement of their two 1872 Cup games against Glasgow, meaning that the win over Saracens 28 days ago remains their most recent outing. That lengthy period of enforced idleness inevitably poses a question about their ability to immediately take up where they left off against the English team, and Cardiff certainly have the talent to exploit any weaknesses which may arise in the home side.

Having said that, Blair’s injury worries have been eased somewhat in recent days, allowing him to field a team which on paper could be his strongest yet. The prospect of watching the back three play together for the first time is especially enticing: with South African Henry Immelman returning from injury, Emiliano Boffelli moves from full-back to right wing, while another Argentine international, Ramiro Moyano, is on the left. Centres Mark Bennett and James Lang complete an impressive three-quarter line, Blair Kinghorn comes back from injury to resume at stand-off, and Ben Vellacott, another new man who has made a big impression, is at scrum-half.

In the pack, Jamie Ritchie makes a timely return from injury at blindside, taking over from Luke Crosbie. The latter is one of three players to miss out for Covid-related reasons along with scrum-half Henry Pyrgos and winger Darcy Graham.

On the bench, lock forward Glen Young is in line for his debut, having been injured shortly after joining from Saracens last summer. So the injury picture has brightened considerably, the only downside for Blair being the fact that the availability of so many players has made it harder for him to give some fringe players an outing. 

“We’re just about there,” he continued. “It’s been a funny period with the heightened amount of Covid cases. We’re doing OK and we’ve been able to put out a fairly full-strength team barring a couple of unavailabilities. I think the guys are just desperate to play.” 

In line with current Scottish Government restrictions, the game will be played without spectators.

Edinburgh (v Cardiff at the DAM Health Stadium, today [Sat] 3pm): H Immelman; E Boffelli, M Bennett, J Lang, R Moyano; B Kinghorn, B Vellacott; P Schoeman, S McInally, W Nel, J Hodgson, G Gilchrist (captain), J Ritchie, H Watson, M Bradbury. Substitutes: D Cherry, B Venter, L de Bruin, G Young, N Haining, C Shiel, J van der Walt, C Dean.

Cardiff: M Morgan; O Lane, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, J Harries; R Priestland, L Williams; R Carré, K Myhill, D Arhip, S Davies, R Thornton, J Turnbull (captain), W Boyde, J Botham. Substitutes: L Belcher, C Domachowski, W Davies-King, J Ratti, E Jenkins, T Williams, J Evans, A Summerhill.

Referee: F Murphy (Ireland).