ONE of the central storylines heading into Friday’s European Challenge Cup final has been Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw facing his former team, but that is something Al Dickinson will also be experiencing.
The 31-year-old prop spent four seasons at Gloucester between 2007 and 2011 and has fond memories of his time in England’s south-west. He had some good runs in the Cherry and Whites team, though it wasn’t all plain-sailing and he faced battles for selection at times, but these challenges, he believes, have improved him as a player. Dickinson is now bursting with excitement about facing the men from Kingsholm on Friday evening at Twickenham Stoop as Edinburgh make history by becoming the first Scottish team to contest a European final.
It’s going to be a huge challenge for both teams, but we are really looking forward to itAl Dickinson
“Gloucester are a great club,” said Dickinson at BT Murrayfield yesterday. “I met a lot of good friends down there and really enjoyed my time there. I know how important this will be to them as well.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for both teams, but we are really looking forward to it. You can see how dangerous Gloucester are, just from last weekend [their semi-final win over Exeter Chiefs]. They can really put things together.
“Both teams seemed to be in a bit of form at the moment, so it should be a cracker.”
Dickinson is well aware of how much Friday will mean to the passionate supporters from one of England’s genuine rugby towns. David Humphreys’ men will be looking to add a second European trophy to the Challenge Cup win of 2006, when they beat London Irish 36-34 at the same venue as this weekend’s match.
“The Gloucester support are so vocal,” said Dickinson. “They are great fans who really get behind the team. They are there about three hours before the game. I’m sure there will be a lot of their support heading down to London, but I’m hoping that there will be a few Edinburgh people there to make a bit of noise as well.
“I really hope that the Scottish fans can travel down and that those who are there will get behind us. It is going to be a huge day for the club and for Scottish rugby as well.”
The former Dundee HSFP and Heriot’s player left Edinburgh for pastures new following the 2007 World Cup. He was one of a trio who departed the Scottish capital for Kingsholm, joining Chris Paterson and Alasdair Strokosch. Dickinson moved to Sale Sharks for a couple of years in 2011 before returning home.
“It was a tough decision to go [to Gloucester],” reflected Dickinson. “It was the year when it was all kicking off here with the Carruthers brothers. I wanted to take myself outside my comfort zone and really test myself. It is an experience I don’t regret at all. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, but in retrospect I think it was good for me.
“But Edinburgh was my first professional club and I feel like it is my home club. I’m really happy to be back playing for them.”
It hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses these past couple of seasons, but Dickinson believes the trajectory has been a gradual upward curve, culminating in the wonderful bonus of this season’s run to a European final.
“I always believed but it is tough when you have some shocking results,” he said. “It is hard to take. When you take the game so personally it can be depressing at times, but that makes you stronger.
“The progression has been fairly slow and steady over the last couple of seasons.
“The general trend has been that we are improving and we have come a long way. We were getting a bit of heat after the first few games of the season which was fair enough because we weren’t performing that well.
“But you have to give credit to all the players and the coaching staff. It was about chipping away and staying together and realising that hard work on the training park pays off.
“It is sometimes hard for outsiders looking in and I know the spectators can get pretty p***ed off. You win well one week and then you go and lose – it is just the rollercoaster ride of rugby, but there is no magic remedy. The biggest thing is believing you can be successful. That has to rub off so that whenever you hit a rough patch of the road you can see the bigger picture.”
Following a bad night at the office a couple of weeks ago, when they were mauled off the BT Murrayfield park by Munster in the league, the Edinburgh pack has knuckled down and posted a couple of imposing performances when needed. Dickinson acknowledges that is something Edinburgh will have to carry with them to Twickenham Stoop if they have any chance of pulling off a glorious victory. He said: “It’s going to be a challenge, but we will try our best. I assume the front row will be Nick Wood, who is one of the few guys left from my time there, and John Afoa – two outstanding props –with Richard Hibbard in the middle.
“They will be formidable opposition, so we have to keep working away and improve in training this week.
“I haven’t scrummed against Afoa before but he is obviously world-class. He’s not an All Black for no reason and he has done very well at Gloucester so it will be a huge test.”
Edinburgh are, of course, determined to be back in the elite Champions Cup next season by securing a Guinness Pro12 top-six finish, but Dickinson admits being in the second-tier competition has been a positive experience and provided an impetus to galvanise their season after a shaky start.
“We thought we could have a real go at it,” he said. “Going across to Bordeaux and winning is a tough thing to do and it is games like that that can really bond the team. It is a really close group of guys, a humble bunch. We just want to work hard, get better and win something.”