ALAN Solomons knew he was stepping on to a rocky bridge when he agreed to take over the listing Edinburgh ship and it is as well that he likes storms as he begins the salvage operation tonight back where he left a dark cloud.
Solomons was sacked at Northampton in 2004, having left Ulster for the Premiership team and duly strengthened the side with a core of leading Springboks. As the Saints started the season with a run of defeats, his decision to place Corne Krige, a popular but unsuccessful South Africa skipper, in charge of the English side was criticised.
Rumours of splits in the camp emerged and the Northampton board reacted, ending Solomons’ contract before Christmas. It failed to dent the South African’s worldwide reputation as a leading rugby thinker and tactician, but he has spent the time since back in his homeland.
Stepping back into the northern hemisphere game now, he is eager to take on the challenge of building Edinburgh into a European force, emulating what he achieved at Ulster, and was quick last week to point out that, at 63, he is quite a bit younger than Sir Alex Ferguson and the same age as Arsene Wenger. Maybe that’s not the best comparison.
But after what is reported to have been a gruelling week’s training and laying down of the law according to Solomons at a training camp in Loughborough, the building starts at Franklin’s Gardens this evening.
While he accepts that the players are only beginning to take on his ideas for playing the game, after just two weeks with the coach in place, and a new defence style that will be developed by his assistant Omar Mouneimne in the coming weeks and months, the head coach has asked his players to aim high against the Saints and provide him and themselves with a first tangible “point of reference”.
He said: “The players have worked and trained very hard in pre-season over the summer but I haven’t seen them play or be put under pressure in a game.
“That is when we’ll really start to learn something about this team and these players. This game is about getting that point of reference. We’ll get a take on where we’re at as a team and learn more about the players as individuals.
“There’s nothing more important to take from this game at this stage in this development process.”
Both Edinburgh and Northampton have opted for strong line-ups, with the visitors including nine Scotland internationalists in the starting XV and the English Premiership runners-up naming seven caps.
Edinburgh are still missing 11 players who are carrying knocks, including Tim Visser (foot), Ross Rennie (shoulder), Stevie Lawrie (back), Stuart McInally (knee) and new scrum-half Grayson Hart, who has an ankle injury. But Scotland prop Alasdair Dickinson begins his second stint at Edinburgh alongside Ross Ford and WP Nel, while Aleki Lutui, Jack Cuthbert, Ollie Atkins and young scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne could make their club debuts from the bench.
Greig Tonks, newly capped by Scotland in the summer, starts on his return to his old club, Nick de Luca and Matt Scott are back in harness in a potential Scotland midfield pairing, and Lee Jones is back with Dougie Fife on the other wing.
Piers Francis is first to take a grip of the stand-off reins alongside skipper Greig Laidlaw. Up front, David Denton starts in the No 8 jersey with Roddy Grant at openside and Sean Cox stepping back to the blindside role, allowing Izak van der Westhuizen the first crack at establishing a fruitful second row partnership with youngster Grant Gilchrist.
Northampton, who defeated Bedford Blues 45-21 at Goldington Road last weekend, are easing in new British and Irish Lions George North and Alex Corbisiero with runs from the bench tonight, but it is a strong side led by Tom Wood with seven internationalists in the starting line-up.
The Edinburgh players are upbeat and keen to banish talk of a season in which they slumped to 11th in the RaboDirect Pro12 and suffered a Heineken Cup whitewash.
Righting the ship may not be achieved overnight, but if they want to send a positive message there are few better places to do so than in the Northampton den.
15 B Foden
14 K Pisi
13 G Pisi
12 L Burrell
11 J Elliott
10 S Myler
9 L Dickson
1 A Waller
2 M Haywood
3 T Mercey
4 C Lawes
5 C Day
6 C Clark
7 T Wood (capt)
8 GJ van Velze
15 G Tonks
14 D Fife
13 N de Luca
12 M Scott
11 L Jones
10 P Francis
9 G Laidlaw (capt)
1 A Dickinson
2 R Ford
3 WP Nel
4 G Gilchrist
5 I vd Westhuizen
6 S Cox
7 R Grant
8 D Denton