BENETTON were the whipping boys of the PRO14 last season, failing to win a single game they played. But Mike Blair, for one, is convinced that they will be challenging towards the top of the United Rugby Championship this season, and has warned his Edinburgh players to expect a tough encounter when the teams meet in Treviso on Saturday in round two of the new tournament.

The Italian club went on from their last-place finish in their PRO14 pool to win the Rainbow Cup, beating Glasgow, Zebre and Connacht in their initial league matches before triumphing in the final with a convincing 35-8 victory over the Bulls from South Africa. Some observers decided not to read too much into those results, reasoning that more than a few teams had gone into the Rainbow Cup in a less than wholly enthusiastic frame of mind. Be that as it may, Blair is convinced that the progress made by Benetton in that competition has been sustained into the new season, which began for them last weekend with a 22-18 win over another South African side, the Stormers.

“They’ve changed from being that team near the bottom of the league that you look to beat, into a team that I think is going to be challenging at the top of the league this year,” the head coach said. “We saw them put in a solid performance against a good Stormers team. They’ve got a lot of momentum behind them, they’ve won six of their last seven games, and they’re a quality outfit.”

When the Italians came to Edinburgh earlier this month to play a pre-season friendly, that quality was only intermittently in evidence, and Blair’s team, looking far sharper  than they had done in their defeat by Newcastle Falcons a week earlier, ran out fairly comfortable 50-29 winners. However, the coach has refused to read too much into that result 11 days ago, insisting that teams have other concerns in such warm-up games than merely claiming a win. As a consequence, he expects a different kind of match to unfold this weekend.

“We’re obviously playing away from home. They had five different starters against the Stormers than they had against us. And I’ve spoken before about warm-up games - you’re using them for a purpose, you’re using them to get game time, or to try something or to give guys opportunities. But this is competitive now.”

Although they were at a low ebb in the regular 2020-21 PRO14 season, Benetton have often been very difficult opponents for both Edinburgh and the Warriors, in a manner reminiscent of the similar difficulties posed at times to Scotland by the Italian national side in the Six Nations Championship. They have often appeared to raise their games for those fixtures, targeting them as more winnable than many others, and Blair is convinced that their heightened self-belief has been a vital ingredient in those performances. 

“Confidence and belief are two things that are really important to Italian rugby, I think. When they believe that they can win and challenge, and they feel that they’ve got the ability to do it, then it becomes a completely different team to play against. You get stuck in a rut with losing games, but it just takes a couple of games to turn it around and you get the confidence - and they’ve really built on that this season.”

The return of supporters to most grounds is an additional factor to be taken into account this season after the pandemic forced players to perform in front of empty stands in 2020-21. But, while home advantage often appeared to be reduced by the absence of spectators, Blair does not think it will return to being as important as it was this season.

“It’ll be interesting. You won’t have so many people travelling, I don’t think. We’ve certainly loved having the supporters here, but I think there will be a feeling of just enjoying playing in front of supporters, whether they’re home supporters or away supporters. 

“These guys are entertainers. You’re doing it because you love the game, but you’re doing it to entertain and that’s what rugby is. So if you’re doing it in front of people, whether they are supporting you or not, then I think that’s part of the experience and part of the buzz you get out of the game.”

Edinburgh still have what Blair called a “sizeable” injury list, and the coach suggested it is unlikely to shrink this week. However, Damien Hoyland, Magnus Bradbury and Nick Haining are all on schedule to return to action fairly soon, and the good news is that no-one appears to have been added to that list in the team’s 26-22 victory over the Scarlets last Saturday. The coach will announce his matchday 23 on Friday.