EDINBURGH have a mountain to climb in their European Challenge Cup quarter-final clash against Bordeaux Begles at lunchtime today, and they must now feel like they are tackling the challenge without walking boots and crampons after winger Duhan van der Merwe, centre Mark Bennett, scrum-half Nic Groom and tight-head prop WP Nel joined the concussed Henry Pyrgos in being ruled out of the game due to injury. 

As a result, Damian Hoyland, James Johnstone and Charlie Shiel have come into the backline. All three are highly capable options individually, but there is now a conspicuous absence of battle-hardened, top-level experience behind the scrum. 

“Duhan has a slight calf strain from the quarter-final, Nic Groom has a calf issue as well that he came off with against Ulster, WP Nel has a slight groin problem from the quarter-final as well, and Mark Bennett has a slight niggle in his knee, so with his history we are looking after him,” explained head coach Richard Cockerill. 

“We’ve got a little bit of experience missing, but it’s a good team, and guys like Charlie Shiel get an opportunity to start a huge game,” Cockerill added. “George Taylor has played very well for us anyway. James Johnstone has played a lot of rugby for us. It’s the best team we can field this weekend, so we go there with optimism, and we’re going there to play as well as we can and try and get a result.” 

Despite being stretched across the backline, Cockerill has not named Nathan Chamberlain in his match-day squad – although he is travelling as 24th man – opting instead to rely on full-back Blair Kinghorn as stand-off cover for Jaco van der Walt. 

Edinburgh have been left particularly thin in this pivotal position due to a combination of Australian Jono Lance being denied a visa and the recruitment freeze which has been instituted in response to the financial hit of COVID-19. Chamberlain – who arrived during the summer as an academy player and was expected to play predominantly in Super6 during the coming season – has been involved in the matchday squad for all three post-lockdown games played so far, but Cockerill is reluctant to put too much pressure on the 20-year-old. 

“At this point, the reality is that unless there is an injury to Jaco, I'm unlikely to use one of the younger 10s to come off the bench because they're not quite ready yet at this level,” said the coach. “It is obviously a slight risk, but I think the risk of putting Blair there if we need to is worth taking. 

“I don't see any budget being available for extra players. It's far from ideal but my job as a coach is to make sure that players come through at the right time, and they don't play when they're not quite ready.” 

Cockerill is a pragmatic individual, and it is clear that his focus is fully on this weekend, but he did hint that he sees problems down the line at stand-off. 

“Jaco will be Scottish qualified in the autumn so he may well be away at some point with the Test team, and, in any case, he can't play every week, but we're at where we're at,” he said. “So, we've got to keep working with Nathan and Cameron Scott, who's even younger, because they are the two 10s that are in the Scotland under-20s squad meaning they are the best options out there.  

“I'm not sure there are many teams that are playing at the level we're playing where their genuine second choice is an academy player.” 

Leaving Chamberlain out this week has allowed Cockerill to go with a 6-2 split on the bench. In the absence of Pyrgos, Groom and Roan Frostwick (another academy prospect who has a foot injury), Heriot’s Super6 player Dan Nutton is covering scrum-half, while Chris Dean covers the rest of the backline. 

“Dan has been labouring on a farm for the past six months, so he's had a quick introduction to get back into playing rugby,” said Cockerill. “It's not a perfect scenario, but he’s a good lad and has worked really hard and fitted in very well.”

“Bordeaux are a very powerful forward pack and the bench reflects that,” he added. “It’s going to be 25° or 26° so we are going to have to have cold towels every 10 minutes,” he continued.” With the attrition rate of the game and the way they play with a very big set of forwards, I just thought that having the opportunity to use a lock and two back-rowers along with the front-rowers [off the bench] was probably my thought process.  

Despite all this, Cockerill insisted that his team believe they can win this match against a side which topped the French leagues before lockdown. “Bordeaux are a big team who want to play the game on their terms, so the key for us is we want to keep the ball in play more than they do, we control the game and play good temp to make sure their big boys are running about and feeling the heat as much as we are,” he concluded.  

“We’ll back our fitness, we’ve got a good pack, a good game-plan and we score tries. We have to be ambitious when we have the ball, make them work and fatigue their big guys, but we have to do that in the right areas of the field. Get guys like Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham against their big guys in wider channels and see if we can expose them.”