Mike Blair looking forward to testing ‘learning’ Edinburgh side against best

IT IS a measure of Edinburgh’s progress this season that their 24-10 win over Benetton on Friday night was greeted with general if mild dissatisfaction. A fifth victory in seven games in the URC, it kept Mike Blair’s side just a point behind Leinster at the top of the table, and yet the head coach spoke for many when he bemoaned the lack of entertainment in the game.

New appointees often plead to be allowed time for their plans to bed in, but since taking over in the summer Blair has made it clear that he expects progress to be swift. “Learning while winning”, he calls it, and there is no denying the speed with which the Edinburgh squad have adapted to the new boss’s ambitious game plan.

Yet nor is there any point in denying that the fixture list has been kind to the capital club. Of those seven games so far, not one has been against the four Irish sides, while three have been against the two Italian teams. 

In other words, more exacting opposition awaits, not only in the league but also in the Challenge Cup, which begins for Edinburgh on Saturday with what is surely their toughest test of the season so far, a visit to Saracens. And that Pool C match will be all the tougher if some of the players who were injured on Friday are ruled out of it.

Willem Nel had to withdraw from the team after pulling up during the warm-up, Bill Mata and Damien Hoyland had to go off in the first half after picking up knocks, and Blair Kinghorn departed late in the game for an HIA. The good news is that Jaco van der Walt should be available to return from injury and take over at stand-off if Kinghorn does not pass his protocols. But, after having had the happy headache of too many in-form players to choose from last week, Blair’s room for manoeuvre in selection could be a lot more limited for the trip to London.

Having said that, the coach appears to be in no way intimidated by the prospect of taking on the former European champions on their own ground. He is confident that his squad can keep on improving, and believes that the best way to accelerate their learning is by pitting them against the best teams.

“It will definitely be a great test for us in terms of where we are and where we can get to,” Blair said. “I think we’ll certainly go with confidence. We have 15 or 23 we’re able to put on the pitch that we should have good expectation for. We are at the start of the journey, but we have a squad who, when we go on the pitch, we should be in a position where we are learning but winning at the same time.

“The expectation is not that it will take time for things to bed in. The expectation is that we learn and we grow while we are winning games. We have lots of internationals, lots of quality, so we want these guys to challenge the best teams in Europe – and Saracens are definitely one of them.”

It is Edinburgh’s attack which has really caught the eye in the early stages of this campaign, but they have only been able to play with such gusto going forward because of the enhanced physicality of their defence. Besides wanting both aspects of his team’s play to continue to evolve, Blair believes it is important for them to develop a versatile playing style.

“It’s not just about attack,” he explained. “It’s about balance to our games – playing in a certain way against different opposition or different conditions. We had to play more against Dragons in the first half because there was no point in kicking the ball because of the strength of the wind. 

“Against Saracens there might be other opportunities that open up – we might have to kick more, make them play from deeper, create counter-attack ball from that. It’s all about balance: seeing what the conditions are, seeing what the opposition are and then reading the defence that we’ve got in front of us.”

EDINBURGH’S CHALLENGE CUP POOL C FIXTURES
Sat 11 Dec: Saracens v Edinburgh 3.15pm

Sat 15 Jan: London Irish v Edinburgh 3.15pm

Fri 21 Jan: Edinburgh v Brive 8pm

Weekend of 8-10 April: Edinburgh v Pau kick-off tbc.

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