In the last two weeks, the character, grit and determination of the Edinburgh Rugby squad has shone through, resulting in back-to-back wins over two top-14 French teams in the European Rugby Challenge Cup.
The first hurdle that had to be overcome was the away match against the powerful Bordeaux-Bègles team. To understand the task that faced us, it must be appreciated that Bordeaux-Bègles, while lying third in the top-14 league, are the form team in France at the moment, having recently handed out 50-point thrashings to both Clermont Auvergne and Castres, two of the most powerful sides in the top 14.
Another challenge that we faced was that the game against Bordeaux-Bègles was played on their home turf. The French are notorious for being fierce opponents in front of their partisan home crowds.
The next challenge that the team faced was the travel schedule. We left Murrayfield at 5am on Thursday morning, flew from Edinburgh to Southampton, from there to Bergerac and then had a two-hour bus trip to Bordeaux, arriving at 2.30pm. In consultation with our conditioning and medical staff, we thought it prudent to go straight to the ground and have our captain’s run. This proved to be a good decision as the players were immediately able to stretch their legs after the journey and have the rest of the day off.
Our challenges did not end there. Five minutes into the match we lost our captain, Mike Coman, to a badly damaged ankle. Gilcho [Grant Gilchrist] took over the reins and did a magnificent job. The next hurdle that we faced was that, at 5-13 down, Phil Burleigh, our experienced Super 12 stand-off, was yellow-carded. From the ensuing penalty, Bordeaux kicked to the line and mauled from a lineout five metres from our line. We held them off but they got another penalty and there was a repeat of the lineout and maul. Again we held them off, turned over the ball and we worked our way up the field to score a vital penalty to take the score to 8-13. Our superior conditioning was starting to tell (Johan Pretorius, our strength and conditioning coach, has done a superb job with the boys) and we gained the ascendency, and ultimately the winning try. It was a truly magnificent performance full of courage and character. Just how well we did against Bordeaux was underlined when they went away to London Welsh and put 50 points past them.
Next stop was Lyon at home. We started like a train and were 13-0 up in as many minutes. Then disaster struck. In the space of 15 minutes we lost five players to serious injury, being Gilcho (broken arm), Hamish Watson (broken jaw), Roddy Grant (fractured cheekbone), Phil Burleigh (ligament damage) and Sam Beard (knock). The injuries were massively disruptive. Nevertheless, the team held its nerve and went on to run out winners 25-17. The performance spoke volumes for the strength in depth of our squad and the never-say-die attitude of the players.
This Friday we are going to battle to field a team against Leinster, last year’s Pro12 champions. We have something in the order of 20 players unavailable through injury or national call-up. Of the players available, a number of them are carrying injuries and have been unable to practise during the week. To say our prep for the Leinster match has been disrupted is an understatement of note. We simply have been unable to practise. Nevertheless we view the upcoming match as another massive challenge to which the boys are determined to rise.
Finally, I would just like to mention that on Monday night our A team played the Ontario Blues, the Canadian regional champions for the last four years, and ran out convincing winners, 41-15 in a first-class match. It was really pleasing to see many of our good young players combining with some good club players and putting in such a sterling performance. It certainly bodes well for the future of Edinburgh Rugby.