EDINBURGH head coach Mike Blair has insisted that his decision to select Jaco van der Walt at full-back is not an experiment and should not be interpreted as a lack of respect for the challenge his team will face this evening when they host a Zebre side which has lost all 13 games played so far in this United Rugby Championship campaign by an average of just under 25 points per match. 

Van der Walt has played the vast majority of his rugby for Edinburgh at stand-off since moving to Scotland from South Africa in 2017 but has found himself squeezed out of that role by Blair Kinghorn this season. However, Blair insists that the 28-year-old can still have an important role to play for club as they push for silverware on two fronts – in the URC and the European Challenge Cup – during the next two months. 

“A lot of time in South Africa he played 15,” explained the coach. “He is an impressive all-round player, who came on at full-back against the Lions at the start of the month and has been covering full-back from the bench for the last few weeks as well. 

“He gives us a goalkicking option and is a solid defender. He is a decision-maker as well, a second receiver who can play on the blindside, so there are benefits in that too.” 

“Part of it is down to his versatility and part of it is down to a few injury concerns around that area,” Blair added, referring to Henry Immelman picking up a minor knee knock last week and Emiliano Boffelli being rested with a back strain.  

“There is a bit of forward planning in there as well in terms of seeing which guys can cover which positions effectively.  

“We want guys to be rugby players and fit in where required. From set-piece, you start in conventional positions but once you go into phase-play we want to have decision-makers who can play all over the pitch. 

“Having all round rugby players certainly suits us and we are confident he will fit in well with what we are trying to do.” 

Blair has made seven changes in total to the starting XV he sent out against Bath in the European Challenge Cup last weekend for this match. 

There are three further changes to his backline. Flyer Freddie Owsley comes onto the wing, Cameron Hutchison gets the nod at inside-centre ahead of James Lang, and Henry Pyrgos will captain the side from scrum-half with Ben Vellacott dropping to the bench. 

In the pack, hooker Dave Cherry, second-row Glen Young and No 8 Mesulame Kunavula all start in place of Scotland trio Stuart McInally, Grant Gilchrist and Magnus Bradbury. 

However, Blair has resisted the temptation to wrap all his frontline players in cotton-wool ahead of taking on top of the table Ulster next weekend, followed by Wasps in the last eight of Challenge Cup the week after that. He has retained Kinghorn at stand-off, Mark Bennett at outside centre, Pierre Schoeman at loose-head prop and Hamish Watson at open-side flanker 

“We know Benetton have not had the results this year, but they should have beaten Newcastle at Newcastle a few weeks ago, they were only 10-6 down away from home to Sharks just after half time last month, and they went seven-up against us when we played over there earlier in the season,” reasoned Blair.  

“We know we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves because this is a really important game.  There is no point resting guys and them being fresh for a game in two or three weeks’ time if we blow it now.”  

Blair added that winger Darcy Graham is progressing well after straining his quadricep during the lead-up to the Bath game. “He’s not going to be long term. He’s had a scan and it is a matter of weeks, hopefully,” said the coach.  

Edinburgh (v Zebre at the DAM Health Stadium, 7.45pm GMT Saturday): J van der Walt; R Moyano, M Bennett, C Hutchison, F Owsley; B Kinghorn (VC), H Pyrgos (captain); P Schoeman, D Cherry, L Atalifo, M Sykes, G Young, B Muncaster, H Watson, M Kunavula. Substitutes: A McBurney, H Courtney, A Williams, J Hodgson, C Boyle, B Vellacott, J Lang, M Currie. 

Zebre: J Laloifi; J Trulla, E Cronjé, E Lucchin, S Gesi; A Rizzi, A Fusco; D Fischetti, L Bigi (captain), I Neculai, G Venditti, A Zambonin, L Mitchell, M Mbandà, T Fox-Matamua. Substitutes: G Ribaldi, P Buonfiglio, E Bello, D Sisi, L Andreani, C Cook, T O’Malley, L Pani.