Club captain Fraser McKenzie is “a really, really good” figure to bring back in the Edinburgh team as head coach Richard Cockerill has to rest frontline players for tonight’s meeting with the Southern Kings.
McKenzie, who Cockerill initially thought might be the first out of the door when he took over at the club, instead has become a figure of trust for the head coach and a mainstay of the squad, even during a prolonged knee injury absence at the start of this season.
The respect Cockerill has for the former Dunfermline player is underlined by McKenzie agreeing a new two-year deal with the club, and being handed the captaincy for the visit of the Kings to BT Murrayfield.
“As I said previously, when I arrived I thought he wouldn’t last very long, but he’s become one of the mainstays of our squad, a good core member of our team and highly valued,” said Cockerill.
“He’s been great. He’s worked very, very hard to stay at the club and keep his job and he’s been bloody good playing wise.
“He’s had a relatively serious knee injury which he’s just got over and he worked very hard to back into things, but he’s a really, really good club man who works really hard, can play at the highest level and can do a good job.
“Fraz leads the team very well, has a good edge about him and is looking forward to playing and pushing his case against Callum Hunter-Hill to get into the 23 for the European games.”
Cockerill is resting several top names after the double wins over Newcastle and Edinburgh, but not as much as he’d have liked to.
“We’ve had four tough weeks, there’s Europe coming up and some obligatory rest for the test players with them then going into the Six Nations tournament, so some changes are enforced and some are just giving opportunities.
“I wouldn’t have picked Vili Mata but Luke Hamilton’s injury curtailed that. We’re pretty short on back-rowers, thus Vili starts, but he’s had three days off this week so he’s fresh and ready to go and happy to play.”
And after the last four weeks have given Edinburgh the springboard to move forward, Cockerill know that matches like tonight’s have huge importance.
“There’s no doubt it’s not quite as glamorous as probably the last month has been, but these games are the ones that hopefully can push us into play-off contention,” he pointed out.
“These points are as important as the ones we’ve taken in the last two weeks. This is an important period for us.
“We’ve had some really tough fixtures earlier in the season and now the other teams are starting to play each other and knock each other off, so it’s important that we try and take advantage of that.”
Edinburgh’s depth isn’t quite there but there is hope on the horizon with Magnus Bradbury and Matt Scott close to returning to action while John Barclay will play for Edinburgh this season, but there’s no set timetable.
“He’s on target, but it could be six months or nine months (of a lay-off), which is what we were told at the start,” said Cockerill. “We’re just working through that. But he’s making good progress as we speak.”
The Kings, bottom of Conference B in the PRO14 again, were “a hard one to work out”, added Cockerill.
“There’s been lots of changes in their team over the last four games, but they’ve got some real threat, some real pace in that back line,” he said. “When teams don’t treat them as they should and show them the respect they should, they cause them problems.
“It’s going to be cold night in January in Edinburgh and we need to take advantage of that. So, we’ll be going at them physically, we need to make sure that we control what they do when they have the ball and impose our game on them.”
Two academy players, centre George Taylor and scrum-half Charlie Shiel – son of former Scotland and Edinburgh centre Graham – are in the matchday squad.
Edinburgh: Dougie Fife; Darcy Graham, George Taylor, Juan Pablo Socino, Duhan van der Merwe; Simon Hickey, Nathan Fowles; Rory Sutherland, Dave Cherry, Simon Berghan; Fraser McKenzie (capt), Callum Hunter-Hill; Jamie Ritchie, Luke Crosbie, Viliame Mata.
Replacements: Ross Ford, Pierre Schoeman, Pietro Ceccarelli, Ben Toolis, Ally Miller, Charlie Shiel, Jaco van der Walt, James Johnstone.