PANDEMICS, postponements and the absence of crowds may have produced the feeling that this season has never got properly started. But in fact, at least in terms of the PRO14, it is now pretty close to the end, which for Edinburgh means it is increasingly urgent to string a run of good results together if they are to achieve their goal of a top-three finish in Conference B.

Richard Cockerill’s team have just half a dozen league fixtures to go including this evening’s home game against Munster, and there is a lot of ground to make up if they are to finish in one of those qualifying slots for next season’s Champions Cup. Munster themselves are out of reach, and their ten-point advantage over Connacht at the top of the conference makes them clear favourites to qualify for the final at the end of next month. 

But fifth-placed Edinburgh, while a massive 23 points adrift of the leaders, have third-placed Cardiff in their sights all right, and only trail the Blues by seven points with two games in hand. And, with their team boosted by the return from Scotland duty of key players such as Grant Gilchrist, Jaco van der Walt and David Cherry, they are going into tonight’s match in a pretty positive frame of mind, according to their coach.

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“For us, [the target] is finishing in the top three and qualifying for the Champions Cup next year,” Cockerill said yesterday after naming his team. “And obviously we have a last-16 game in Europe at some point post this block, so we’ve still got plenty to play for, and the season is alive in that regard. 

“Having three or four guys back from Test duty is good: we’ve got a good side out. We’ve had some very tough, close battles against them in the last couple of seasons, so we should be very motivated and every point is going to be vital.  

“Munster are a good side, they’ve been on great form this season, and they’ve picked their best team possible, which is a sign of the respect they’ve shown us. Whatever points we can get out of the game – hopefully all of them – is going to be vital going into the last six games.”

Damien Hoyland, who has been out since the autumn with ankle-ligament damage, makes his return at full-back in place of the injured Blair Kinghorn. Cockerill suggested that Kinghorn was “probably a couple of weeks away” from playing again.

Lock Ben Toolis will be out for the next month or so after having minor surgery on a big toe, and Simon Berghan, Duhan van der Merwe, Willem Nel, Jamie Ritchie, Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson have all been retained by Scotland. Those absences plus the teams’ relative recent form make Munster favourites, but if the home pack manage to hold their own in the set piece, their back row of Nick Haining, Luke Crosbie and Bill Mata could do some damage. 

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Two players are set to make their debuts for Cockerill’s team off the bench - outside centre Matt Currie, a Scotland Under-20 cap who has played for Watsonians in Super6, and loosehead prop Boan Venter, the recent signing from the Cheetahs. Currie may have to wait patiently for a year or two before being given a regular run in the Edinburgh midfield, but South African Venter is set to play a big part in the team next season when Pierre Schoeman qualifies to play for Scotland.  

“He’s a big, strong and powerful guy,” Cockerill said. “It was important to get him straight in to integrate, having been in isolation for the last 10 days. He’s a good scrummager, he’s very dynamic, and he’s a big man – 120 kilos plus – so if he gets an opportunity tomorrow to play that will be great. 

“He hasn’t played for a few weeks because of finishing with Cheetahs, and he looks like he’s had a couple of goodbye parties, so he just needs to get himself back in top nick. But he’s played recently, so he’ll hit the ground running. He’s a good complement to Schoeman and Sutherland, and in less than six months’ time we will have both those guys available to play for Scotland, so he’s going to be an important part of what we do in the next couple of years.” 

Edinburgh (v Munster at BT Murrayfield, tonight [Saturday] 7.35pm): D Hoyland; J Blain, M Bennett, C Dean, E Sau; J van der Walt, H Pyrgos (captain); P Schoeman, D Cherry, L Atalifo, A Davidson, G Gilchrist, N Haining, L Crosbie, V Mata. Substitutes: M Willemse, B Venter, M McCallum, M Bradbury, A Miller, C Shiel, N Chamberlain, M Currie.

Munster: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, D de Allende, S Daly; J Hanrahan, C Casey; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan, J Kleyn, W Holland (captain), J O’Donoghue, C Cloete, G Coombes. Substitutes: K O’Byrne, J Loughman, S Archer, F Wycherley, J O’Sullivan, N McCarthy, B Healy, R Scannell.