JAMIE Ritchie has emerged as a doubt for the start of Scotland’s Six Nations campaign after again being omitted from the Edinburgh team because of concussion issues. The blindside flanker last played at the start of this month, and as today’s PRO14 game in Parma is Edinburgh’s last before the Championship begins, he will not have another chance to get match practice ahead of the Calcutta Cup fixture a fortnight today.
Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill would not make a prediction either way about Ritchie’s chances of being in the Scotland team to face England, but he did insist that every precaution had to be taken with players who have taken head knocks. “He hasn’t recovered sufficiently to be considered for selection.” Cockerill said.
“It’s right to be cautious, and we’ve got good back-row depth in the squad, so the sensible thing is to make sure that he’s 100 per cent right. Regardless of what fixtures are coming up, it’s certainly something that we take very seriously.”
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A fortnight is in theory ample time for the blindside to pass whatever tests are required, but there is no accurate way of judging his chances of being declared fit. Ritchie’s fellow-internationals Richie Gray and Pete Horne have had similar problems this season, and although Gray is now back playing and in impressive form for Glasgow, his Warriors team-mate Horne remains sidelined.
Rory Sutherland has also been left out of Cockerill’s team for the trip to Italy, but in his case the coach is confident he will be available to face England. “He’s got a slight stiff back – nothing too serious, but he’s not fit,” the coach said of the loosehead prop, then added “Definitely” when asked if Sutherland would be fit for Twickenham.
Wingers Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham are also missing from the Edinburgh side, through injury and personal reasons respectively, but as things stand both should be available to national Gregor Townsend. Ben Toolis, who was omitted from the squad of 35 announced by the national coach in midweek, continues to be sidelined with a foot injury.
More positively, Cockerill has been able to name seven members of that squad – Blair Kinghorn, Jaco van der Walt, David Cherry, WP Nel, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist and Hamish Watson – for a game that he regards as vital if Edinburgh are to climb into contention for a top-three place in Conference B. “It’s an important game. Every time you lose the next game is just as important. This one is vital for us.
“For us to push up the table this is one we need to win. We need a reaction from [the loss to Glasgow]last week. I thought parts of our game were very good and parts were soft. We need to be right on top of all of that.”
Cockerill has made five changes to his team from that 23-22 defeat by the Warriors, three in the pack and two in the backs. Up front, Pierre Schoeman takes over at loosehead from Sutherland and WP Nel is at tighthead instead of Simon Berghan. The other alteration to the pack is in the back row, where Luke Crosbie comes in for Magnus Bradbury.
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Winger Jack Blain, a late withdrawal last week, is restored to the starting line-up instead of Jamie Farndale, while Henry Pyrgos starts at scrum-half after being a substitute in the 23-22 loss at Scotstoun. Charlie Shiel returns as back-up scrum-half, with Nic Groom being dropped from the squad after his hooter howler last week.
Cockerill insisted that the omission of the South African was just due to squad rotation, but admitted he had had words with Groom, who kicked the ball out of play after mistaking the noise made by a passing train for the half-time klaxon. “We made it very clear that there are no hooters in the northern hemisphere,” the coach added.
Centre George Taylor is also among the substitutes – his first time in the squad since sustaining a facial injury against the Scarlets in November. And Sutherland’s absence means there is a place on the bench for 21-year-old loosehead Sam Grahamslaw.
Zebre (v Edinburgh at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, today 1pm UK time): M Biondelli; G D’Onofrio, F Mori, T Boni, M Bellini; C Canna, G Palazzani; D Fischetti, L Bigi, G Zilocchi, D Sisi (captain), M Kearney, M Mbandà, J Meyer, R Giammarioli. Substitutes: M Manfredi, D Rimpelli, E Bello, L Krumov, P Leavasa, J Renton, A Rizzi, J Elliott.
Edinburgh: B Kinghorn; J Blain, M Bennett, C Dean, E Sau; J van der Walt, H Pyrgos; P Schoeman, D Cherry, W Nel J Hodgson, G Gilchrist (captain), L Crosbie, H Watson, V Mata. Substitutes: M Willemse, S Grahamslaw, S Berghan, N Haining, M Bradbury, C Shiel, N Chamberlain, G Taylor.