AFTER losing their last four matches in the URC, Edinburgh face a fixture against Zebre this afternoon which has become a must-win as well as a should-win match.

Must-win, because that run of defeats has dropped them down to 10th in the 16-team table, with four of the sides above them having games in hand. They only have seven games left in which first to fight their way back into the top-eight play-off places, and then to aim for the top-four slot which guarantees a home draw.

Should-win, because Zebre have lost all 11 of their league matches so far, including a 38-19 home defeat by Mike Blair’s side back in October. And although the Italian team came close to causing an upset in a couple of their early outings, more recently they have looked altogether less impressive. Last month began for them with a 45-17 loss to Glasgow in Parma, then they lost heavily in both derbies against Benetton over Christmas.

The key for Edinburgh is to play solidly, sensibly, but not too cautiously. Knowing that they should win brings a certain amount of pressure with it as well as a fair degree of confidence, and Blair is confident that his players will strike a good balance between those two factors.

“I don’t think there will be any complacency at all,” the head coach said. “I believe the group we have selected has a huge amount of character and a huge amount to prove, and I’m really excited to see them take on this challenge.”

Blair has made nine changes to his starting line-up from last week’s home loss to the Warriors, and has been forced by injuries to field a fairly inexperienced back division. With Duhan van der Merwe and Emiliano Boffelli having joined an already extensive injury list in the back three because of an ankle injury and a groin strain respectively, Blair Kinghorn moves from stand-off to the wing, where he has played much of his international rugby. His coach, however, insisted the swap was only a temporary measure and that he continued to see Kinghorn as primarily a 10 even though Munster stand-off Ben Healy will join the club next season.

“I'm really confident that Blair has shown enough over the last 18 months or so to merit that status as our No 1 10,” Blair said. “We’re very fortunate that he’s an international-class back three as well and is happy to help us out in that position this week.”

Jack Blain is on the other wing, Harry Paterson holds on to the No 15 jersey, and centre Cammy Hutchison comes in for his first start of the season. In the pack, Dave Cherry and Nick Haining return from injury at hooker and No 8 respectively, while Luke Crosbie captains the team from blindside. Four senior forwards - Grant Gilchrist, WP Nel, Jamie Ritchie and Pierre Schoeman - are rested in accordance with Scottish Rugby’s protocol on playing time.

Speaking earlier this week, openside flanker Connor Boyle said that much of the emphasis in training had been on the team’s areas of strength such as the maul. That, and the greater experience of the starting pack compared to the back division, could see Edinburgh play a slightly more safety-first, forward-based game this afternoon - although Blair suggested there would also be a fair amount of open play involving his backs.

“Zebre have got a good defensive lineout, but we believe we can also challenge their attacking lineout, so there will be some games to play in and around that,” he said. “We want to be ruthless when we get opportunities, whether that’s in our maul or finishing our attacks. We want to be able to balance that, because we have a really talented back division as well.”

Edinburgh have 12 players in all on their injury list, while Zebre have ten, including their captain David Sisi, and are also without the suspended Lorenzo Pani. Both sides, then, are fairly depleted, but Edinburgh have greater strength in depth, not to mention greater ability, and should prevail with something to spare.

Edinburgh (v Zebre at the DAM Health Stadium, today [Sat] 3pm): H Paterson; J Blain, M Bennett, C Hutchison, B Kinghorn; C Savala, C Shiel; B Venter, D Cherry, A Williams, S Skinner, J Hodgson, L Crosbie (captain), C Boyle, N Haining. Substitutes: P Harrison, N Auterac, L de Bruin, M Sykes, V Mata, B Vellacott, J van der Walt, J Lang.

Zebre: J Trulla; P Bruno, T Boni, E Lucchin (captain), S Gesi; T Eden, A Fusco; P Buonfiglio, L Bigi, M Nocera, D Visser, J Furno, G Ferrari, M Pelser, M Kvesic. Substitutes: J du Toit, A Sanavia, M Hasa, L Krumov, D Ruggeri, R Jelic, G Prisciantelli, F Smith.

Referee: A Barrett-Theron (South Africa).