Agen v Edinburgh: Grant Gilchrist not taking Challenge Cup lightly

Edinburgh's Grant Gilchrist
Grant Gilchrist is captain in his first start since returning from the World Cup
European Challenge Cup: Agen v Edinburgh
Venue: Stade Armandie, Agen Date: Friday, 15 November Kick-off: 19:00 GMT
Coverage: Listen live on Radio Scotland & online; live text updates on BBC Sport Scotland website & app

You could forgive the Edinburgh players for feeling like the child who ate with the grown-ups last Christmas only to be relegated to the kids' table this time around.

Not only did they end a lengthy absence from the European Champions Cup last season, they took the competition by storm. Home and away wins over Toulon and Newcastle, and a victory over Vern Cotter's Montpellier (they should have beaten them in their own backyard too), led them to a quarter-final that they could easily have won but for the street-smarts of the old masters Munster.

Munster, Toulon, Montpellier - names to set the pulses racing. This year, though, it's back to the Challenge Cup and some of the less celebrated names of European rugby. Like Agen, where Edinburgh kick off their campaign on Friday.

Surely it must be hard to gee yourself up to the max when the opposition is not of the calibre you have faced - and conquered - in the last year? Not so according to Grant Gilchrist.

"This is a new tournament, it's a tournament we want to do well in," says the Scotland lock, who captains the side in the south of France.

"We've got some guys who have not played very much that are bursting at the seams to play, then you've got the international guys who are coming back and making their first impressions of the season in an Edinburgh jersey.

"We've got a highly motivated squad and that will be the case for all the Challenge Cup weeks. We've been involved in this tournament a number of times and done well."

Some of Edinburgh's standout performances and results in recent years have come in this competition. The 36-35 win over Harlequins is one that sticks out, coming a year after Alan Solomons led his side to the 2015 final, when they lost to Greig Laidlaw's Gloucester.

Head coach Richard Cockerill has made little effort to disguise his feelings on Europe's second-tier competition. For him, the Champions Cup is the only true measure of where you stand among the continent's elite.

That's not to say he would not get interested should Edinburgh go deep into the Challenge Cup, which is what Gilchrist is targeting.

"We're in it to win it, just like we are in the Pro14 to do as well as we can," the 29-year-old says. "We're going to take every game seriously, prepare properly and it's an opportunity to do well and create some big games.

"I remember the run to the final in Solly's era. They're big games and you want to play in big games, so we need to get the job done in the pool stages."

Energised again after World Cup pain

After coming off the bench in last week's home win over Dragons, Gilchrist will make his first start since the World Cup.

He admits Scotland's failed campaign in Japan took its toll and a break from the game was required before refocusing on Edinburgh.

"I can be a bit of a thinker, a bit of a dweller, but I made a conscience effort to put it out my mind for a couple of weeks because it's going to be a long old season," he reveals.

"There's nobody that didn't come home feeling absolutely gutted with how it panned out. You struggle to hide from that completely, but I spent a lot of time with my mates and family and just tried to switch off from rugby.

"By the end of my holiday, I was getting really excited about the season ahead with Edinburgh."

Agen currently sit one place above bottom spot in the French Top 14 with three wins and a draw from their nine matches this season. That should give plenty of encouragement to this Edinburgh side even allowing for the numerous changes Cockerill has made and Gilchrist says last year's French travels should serve them well.

"I was just reminding the boys how tough it can be out here if you let it spiral away from you," he stresses.

"I remember that Montpellier game well. That first 20 minutes we let them offload, let their crowd get up and it took us 20-30 minutes to remember that we're a good side too. We got hold of the ball and we started to put our game on them.

"We have spoken a lot about how well we start the game, knowing that French teams are very proud and, if they get their game going, they can be hard to stop. That's the challenge that awaits us and it's good to have had those experiences last year."