Coach deserves contract extension, but only just, and Edinburgh need to bring more variety to their game
Edinburgh Rugby finally got around to announcing their coach for next season, exactly two days before the final, regular season match. I heard a whisper that Alan Solomons was to be retained some months back and assumed that the delay in announcing it was because the South African’s extension was linked with a top-six finish… obviously not.
SRU boss Mark Dodson congratulated Solomons on his side’s improved league position and, sure enough, Michael Bradley left the club one off the bottom of the ladder. Since then Solomons’ side has finished in eighth place in his first season (when the players had poor conditioning etc etc) and ended in eighth place again at the end of this campaign. The club’s league position has remained as changeable as the Bass Rock over the past 12 months, although the number of wins has jumped from seven to ten, which is progress of a sort.
There have been some successes, notably the emergence of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne as a quality scrum-half, Ben Toolis as a big, athletic lump of a lock and Alasdair Dickinson who is in the form of his life. Moreover, Solomons’ side were the first Scottish team to make a major European final, for which the players deserve full credit, but they froze so completely in the first 30 minutes that the match should have been over by half-time, for which they deserve a kick in the pants.
In the league the team’s form has been mixed. They have claimed some scalps, notably Munster in Limerick and the Scarlets in West Wales, but they also lost matches they should have won in their sleep, against Connacht at Murrayfield on the second week of the season and Zebre on the road. They did win the 1872 Cup for the first time in five years, no mean feat, and they deserved it over the course of the 160 minutes when they out-played a squad with significantly more resources.
According to one reliable source, Glasgow’s portion of the SRU’s financial pie is bigger than Edinburgh’s for the very good reason that Murrayfield sees the overwhelming benefit to Scottish rugby of actually winning something and, to that end, they backed the Warriors. The extra money not only buys Gregor Townsend more top-end strength, it buys the Glasgow squad more depth so they remain competitive throughout the season including the international windows.
‘Solomons has yet to replace the old swagger with anything very much more effective’
But it isn’t just money that separates the two clubs. Townsend trusts most of his squad and changes his starting XV more often than his underwear. Solomons tends to stick with a small group of those he trusts so, while some have enjoyed break-through seasons, we are still waiting to catch a rare glimpse of umpteen lesser known players.
Simon Berghan and Allan Dell are two young props, both foreign-born but Scottish qualified, and they have started one league match between them all season. If they are good enough then give them game time, if they aren’t then sign someone who is. Same position, same age, Alex Allan has had seven starts for Glasgow this season and it might have been more but for a shoulder injury.
Incidentally the SRU are advertising for an “international resettlement adviser” to help new players integrate into Scottish rugby, “especially those from the southern hemisphere”. It pays £35-40,000 per annum and I can save the union that money right now by advising all comers to pack their long johns.
While it looks like the SRU are recruiting again, some may argue that Edinburgh have enough foreign legionnaires in their ranks as it is. Cornel Du Preez, Phil Burleigh and WP Nel have been a success, Wicus Blaauw, Carl Bezuidenhout and Andries Strauss markedly less so.
While the South African was right to point out that Edinburgh needed to change their mind set, Solomons has yet to replace the old swagger with anything very much more effective. Edinburgh’s defence has improved significantly but they still concede tries at a rate of over two per match while the best in the league are close to one.
Meanwhile Edinburgh’s attack is going nowhere, slowly, although it hasn’t been helped by a stream of injuries to Matt Scott, who remains the club’s most potent weapon. The coach’s reluctance to allow his team to play any rugby inside their own half of the field allows the opposition to drop deep ready to counter, as Gloucester did to devastating effect in that European final, because they know the kick is coming.
Solomons’ should have retained some of Edinburgh’s attacking flair while grafting on a stonewall defence to augment it. Andy Robinson did exactly that in 2008-9 when Edinburgh scored the most points in the league and conceded the third lowest total to finish in second place.
Instead Edinburgh kick down town and rely on their forwards, South African style, to bully the opposition into submission. When that fails they have no Plan B. Edinburgh don’t have a high tempo, off-loading game to utilise against more muscular opposition. When faced with the power of Munster or Gloucester, Edinburgh lose the arm wrestle and lose the match. The Springboks, who Solomons used to coach, are not renowned for the variety of their play and Edinburgh are a poor man’s version. You can take the South African out of South Africa but…
Tim Visser, who is off to Harlequins in the summer, has not even tried to hide his frustration at this conservative style and the Waratah’s giant Fijian winger Taqele “T” Naiyaravoro will be wasting his time shivering on Edinburgh’s flank which is where the Australian papers have him headed. But Glasgow want him and they appear to have got their man despite suggestions that “T” might yet turn out for the Wallabies.
Solomons has perhaps done enough to deserve another season, if only just, and no one was crushed in the crowds celebrating the news. Perhaps now Murrayfield will confirm that Scotland assistant Duncan Hodge will join Solomons’ team immediately after the World Cup so both he and Stevie Scott will be well placed to vie for the top job come 2016-17. Or perhaps the SRU will wait until two days before the deadline as per usual.