EDINBURGH RUGBY head coach Richard Cockerill has made sweeping changes to the team that will face Agen in the European Challenge Cup this evening.

There are twelve changes from the side that defeated Dragons in the Pro14 last week, with scrum-half Charlie Shiel and lock Sam Thomson making their first starts for the club.

Shiel, the son of former internationalist Graham Shiel, has been at the capital club since 2016 but has had to bide his time before getting his first start. But Cockerill is confident the 21-year-old will step up to the challenge in France.

“He’s got to prove he can run a game for us,” he said of Shiel.

“In his cameos off the bench he’s looked sharp and has a spark. He’s got to be able to calm and lead the team around the field and drive the team. It will be interesting to see if he can do that from the start of a game. It’s part of his development and a good opportunity for him.”

“He’s got a good instinct, eye for the gap, very tenacious. I think the thing with Charlie is he needs his detail to be on point and he needs to deliver what the team needs and not just what he sees in the game.

“There’s a lot to like about him but with pressure he’s going to have to deliver those things as accurately as possible. It’s a little bit easy to come on for 15-20 minutes when your team’s winning. Agen are a good side playing at home where they rarely lose so it will be a good test for Charlie.

“He needs to work on his retention of information. Nobody touches the ball more than a scrum-half, so he has to be very diligent, very on it, and drive the team. So Charlie needs to be sure of that and this is an opportunity for him to pull of these pieces together.”

Cockerill has made clear in recent weeks that the Pro14 is his priority this season, with the Challenge Cup of somewhat less importance but he disputes the suggestion that such a raft of changes to his squad means that he doesn’t care about the competition.

“We’ve got a tough run of 13 games on the trot,” he said of the current busy phase of games.

“There’s a good mixture across the group, and if we’re going to build strength across our squad guys have got to get more opportunities. We’ve had two good years of building a team with character, a good work ethic and a solid base to work from, so guys have got to have opportunity, and take it.

“Damien Hoyland has played very well so far this season and James Johnstone has been outstanding for us the last two years, and he’s not had so many opportunities because Mark Bennett’s been on such good form. George Taylor’s been on good form and Farndale’s a good sevens player. Could we have picked a different team? Certainly. But the mixture of that team and the guys who have actually performed is very good.”

Agen are currently sitting second bottom in their domestic league but Cockerill is not expecting an easy ride. And he is looking forward to how this team will stand up to the pressure.

“They’ve been promoted and up until last weekend were sitting mid-table in the Top 14, before some big teams got their France players back,” he said.

“I think they’ll pick a strong side because they are at home and won’t want to lose. It’ll be a good test for guys like Charlie Shiel and Sam Thomson, and for us to reintegrating the international guys and giving them some continuity and gametime.”