Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill has admitted he faces a tricky task in trying to balance the club’s ambitions with producing Scottish qualified players for the national side.
The capital team have been deprived of their frontline international contingent for most of the season, with some playing as few as three games for the club.
It has been an exceptional campaign due to Covid-19, with the autumn international window extended to try to generate more revenue for a sport hit hard by the absence of supporters.
This impacted on the clubs who were without their key men for longer stretches and the situation was exacerbated by extra precautions around the pandemic which made it more difficult for players to move from one team environment to another.
The scheduling of Guinness Pro14 games on a Monday night didn’t help as it clashed with Scotland training days.
The upshot is that Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors are now realising that they may be better served by having a larger proportion of non-Scottish qualified players than they have currently.
“It’s a tricky balance because we’ve got two pro teams for whom we need to produce players to play for the Scotland national side,” said Cockerill ahead of Edinburgh’s match against Munster at BT Murrayfield on Saturday night.
“From an Edinburgh point of view we’ve done that very well in the past four years since I’ve been here, and before.”
Cockerill says the situation is particularly acute in specialised positions such as prop where clubs can lose their two first-choice players to Scotland.
“It’s like our loosehead situation for next year where I think [Rory] Sutherland and [Pierre] Schoemann will be the first and second choice looseheads for Scotland, which means you have to buy quality as a third choice, which means you’re probably carrying four or five looseheads rather than three or four.
“If [Glasgow and Scotland tighthead prop] Zander [Fagerson] gets injured or suspended and WP [Nel] starts, with [Simon] Berghan on the bench or travelling reserve then you lose those expensive guys for large chunks of the year, which means that your number three, four and five [in the propping positions] have to be of a quality because you need four good front rowers every time you play.
“So to guarantee having people available in those key times of the season, having non-Scottish qualified players is the only way of actually doing that. If Zander’s unavailable, Scotland have WP Nel and Berghan, and after that the quality drops off quite considerably from a Scottish qualified [SQ] point of view, so it’s about getting the depth for the national team while keeping your pro teams competitive when those guys are away.”
Some would say it was ever thus and will remain so while Edinburgh and Glasgow remain under the control of the Scottish Rugby Union.
Edinburgh, for example, have supplied 11 players to Gregor Townsend’s Six Nations squad, while Glasgow provide another nine.
“It’s a difficult one, from a club perspective it makes it hard to be consistent over a season because we lose so many,” Cockerill added.
“Leinster obviously lose a lot, but outside of that the two pro teams in Scotland will lose more players to Test teams than anyone else. It’s difficult because you’re at the whims of Scotland selection, injury, suspension where you can lose players you don’t expect to.
“But we’ve still got 80 per cent SQ and we only have foreign players in positions where we already have a lot of SQ players playing for the national team.”
The needs of the national side will always come first which can be frustrating for Cockerill and his Glasgow counterpart Danny Wilson. Their situation has not been helped by player budgets being hit by the pandemic.
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Nevertheless, Glasgow were able to recruit Dempsey and McKay. Cockerill says he is not in a position to follow suit.
“No, we haven’t got any budget to sign anybody,” he said. “It is what it is. If anyone leaves we’re allowed to use that money. But the reality is we’re in February and the end of the season’s not that far away.”
Cockerill’s more immediate concern is qualifying for next season’s Heineken Champion Cup which would mean securing a top-three finish in Conference B of the Pro14.
Edinburgh are currently fifth, six points behind fourth-placed Scarlets and seven adrift of fourth-placed Cardiff, but have two games in hand on both.
“I think qualification for Europe is certainly a goal for us but it has been a very disjointed season and we don’t know where it is going to end up at this point, or what is happening after this block of games,” added Cockerill.
Edinburgh have not played since beating Zebre in Italy on January 23 and they make four changes for the match with Munster. Lock Andrew Davidson replaces the injured Jamie Hodgson, while Fijian international tighthead Lee-Roy Atalifo and Scotland back-row Nick Haining come in for WP Nel and Hamish Watson, who have been retained by Scotland.
There’s one change in the backs where Damien Hoyland makes his first competitive appearance since October after recovering from an ankle injury. He starts at full-back in place of Blair Kinghorn who is out with a wrist injury and not expected to return until the Benetton game on March 7.
Three Scotland players have been released back to Edinburgh for the game: hooker David Cherry, lock Grant Gilchrist and stand-off Jaco van der Walt.
There could also be first outings for new South African prop Boan Venter and Watsonians’ FOSROC Academy centre Matt Currie, who are both named on the bench.