Edinburgh will be leaning on players with South African connections in several key positions to help drive their quest for victory in the club’s first ever Guinness PRO14 semi-final against Ulster at Murrayfield on Saturday night.
While Springbok loose-forward Marcell Coetzee is joined by his former Sharks teammate Louis Ludik in a Ulster team that used to pack far more of a presence of South African players, the hosts include no less than six players in their squad who were born in the republic. That includes the halfback pairing made up of former Stormers and Lions scrumhalf Nic Groom and former Lions flyhalf Jaco van der Walt, the two pivotal players in the good win over Glasgow Warriors in the PRO14 return to play weekend.
Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill rested some of his star players in the return derby against Glasgow last week because there was nothing on the game for his team, but he has made eight changes to the team that will bid to take Edinburgh into the final. That includes the return of South African born Scottish international WP Nel to the front-row as well as fellow Scotland capped players Mark Bennett, Rory Sutherland, Stuart McInally and Ben Toolis.
Former Bulls loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman, such a hero at Edinburgh since joined, will be looked to for the galvanisation of the forward pack by coming off the bench in the second half, as will former Southern Kings captain Michael Willemse, who is the reserve hooker.
Try-grabbing wing Duhan van der Merwe has set many Edinburgh fans’ hearts racing with his play in recent years and will have a key role to play when the hosts get a chance to attack, but with Cockerill emphasising the need to play “finals rugby” to get what his team so desperately wants, the Groom and Van der Walt halfback pairing will shoulder a particularly big responsibility.
“As a club, we’ve been building to this point and I’m hoping those experiences of the last three seasons will come to fruition on Saturday night. It’s about knowing how to play knock-out rugby and not playing an exhibition,” said Cockerill in the buildup to the game.
“Ulster are a great side. We look forward to the challenge and we know at the pressure moments we need to deliver. This is new territory for us. We’re capable - if we get things right - to get to a final and see how good we can be.”
Meanwhile, the visitors are competing in their ninth Championship semi-final and boast a similar record to the one that the Stormers did for a long time in Super Rugby - they know how to get to the play-offs but seldom advance very far. They’ve won only one of their semi-finals.
The Belfast team has five Irish internationals plus Coetzee and former Wallaby lock Sam Carter in his starting team plus six internationals on the bench.
So no-one can argue that Ulster lack experience, they just need to get over their play-off bogey as well as overcome the trend of failure for visiting teams in PRO14 semi-finals - the Scarlets are the only side that has ever tasted success on the road at this juncture of the competition.
Flyhalf Billy Burns will return to captain the Ulster men, and is one of three changes from last week’s meeting with Leinster.
Second semi-final - Edinburgh v Ulster (Murrayfield, Saturday 8.35pm on Supersport)
Edinburgh: 15. Blair Kinghorn, 14. Darcy Graham, 13. Mark Bennett, 12. Chris Dean, 11. Duhan van der Merwe, 10. Jaco van der Walt, 9. Nic Groom, 8. Viliame Mata, 7. Hamish Watson, 6. Magnus Bradbury, 5. Grant Gilchrist, 4. Ben Toolis, 3. WP Nel, 2. Stuart McInally, 1. Rory Sutherland. Replacements: 16. Mike Willemse, 17. Pierre Schoeman, 18. Simon Berghan, 19. Andrew Davidson, 20. Jamie Ritchie, 21. Charlie Shiel, 22. Nathan Chamberlain, 23. George Taylor.
Ulster: 15. Jacob Stockdale, 14. Louis Ludik, 13. James Hume, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Rob Lyttle, 10. Billy Burns (captain), 9. John Cooney; 8. Marcell Coetzee, 7. Jordi Murphy, 6. Matthew Rea, 5. Sam Carter, 4. Alan O’Connor, 2. Eric O’Sullivan, 2. Rob Herring, 1. Tom O’Toole. Replacements: 16. John Andrew, 17. Jack McGrath, 18. Marty Moore, 19. Kieran Treadwell, 20. Sean Reidy, 21. Alby Mathewson, 22. Ian Madigan, 23. Michael Lowry.