HEADING into a new year on the back of depressing defeats, the reigning Heineken Cup champions might not top the list of first-footers you would wish to welcome in.
But not only do Edinburgh host Leinster at Murrayfield this evening, they then entertain Munster before travelling south to meet Saracens in their final two weeks of this season’s Heineken Cup. A tough assignment for a team coming into the new year off four straight losses indeed, but it also presents a great opportunity, for if Michael Bradley’s men can pick up their form and take points from the next two games the confidence boost will be significantly greater than beating sides below them.
Bradley also has South African tighthead Willem Nel back. Former South Africa coach Jake White was once asked who his most important players were, and he replied: “The most important is my tighthead and the second most important my reserve tighthead.”
Bradley must have felt something similar recently as Edinburgh’s scrum was pushed backwards, sideways and upwards, so giving up a key foothold against the Warriors. They have also made changes to the back row with Dimitri Basilaia and Stuart McInally taking over from Roddy Grant and Netani Talei respectively while All Black Ben Atiga returns for James King in midfield, with Nick de Luca still ruled out with a facial injury which may keep him out of action until the Six Nations.
The key to improvement for Bradley, however, lies less with personnel and more with the players’ ability to start tonight’s game well as a team and, simply, hold on to the ball.
He acknowledged: “We were well beaten by Glasgow in the sense that I think they played better in both games. They controlled territory very well and took their chances, and started both games sharper than we did.
“The management of the first 20-25 minutes of our recent games, in particular against Glasgow, wasn’t good, and we’ve discussed this with the players and we’re looking for a response in the match against Leinster now.
“We expected Leinster to name a strong team with [Brian] O’Driscoll, [Rob] Kearney and [Luke] Fitzgerald starting, but that could be an advantage because they haven’t played in a while and will be a little bit ring-rusty in the physicality of a PRO12 game, so we’ll be looking to play that to our advantage. But we need a big emphasis on a good start against Leinster.”
O’Driscoll has spent much of this season injured and will not be the same slick player he is when in the groove of consecutive games, provided of course Edinburgh can keep him quiet for long spells, and Leinster’s recent 17-0 win over Connacht was also their first in four games in league and Heineken Cup.
But this is perhaps the perfect opposition for the Scottish side off the back of the 1872 Cup, as, according to Bradley, the other big lesson his team is needing to grasp is how to play the game in the opposition half and exert pressure for longer. That is arguably the cornerstone of Leinster’s success in recent times, a clinical ability to play the game in the half and face of their opponents, and seize on mistakes.
Looking back on last Saturday’s loss, Bradley reflected: “We over-played our hand in certain areas of the pitch. If you look at the match in detail, we knocked the ball on four times in their half, and when you combine that with two tap-penalties, that’s our lot for the first half and so we completely relieved pressure on Glasgow. They didn’t have to work hard for that.
“And then they did what they do very well, in that they controlled the territory in the game and from there were able to exert good pressure on us and we weren’t able to handle it.
“For us, it’s grasping that this is a key element of winning games. It’s part of our learning curve and I know coaches talk about ‘learning curves’ and people start getting dizzy, but the reality is that we have to have a bigger value on starting games in the right area and building pressure on the opposition. Learning that this year, added to what we can do in attack, would make us a stronger proposition in the immediate future.”
Edinburgh had a good record of beating Leinster at home, with and without their star names, so tonight’s match could provide a crucial launchpad for the beleaguered home side.
The injured British and Irish Lions trio of Fitzgerald, Kearney and O’Driscoll join Fionn Carr, Gordon D’Arcy, Jonny Sexton and Eoin Reddan in a top-class backs line-up, so winning and keeping ball will be crucial for Edinburgh.
Leo Cullen also leads an all-international pack with Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien key figures, so Edinburgh’s bid to lift spirits with victory will be a stiff one, but Bradley is ready for the test.
He added: “I think all the PRO12 games for us now are going to be one-off challenges, as well as the Heineken Cup matches, so our mindset is very focused on the next game and challenging ourselves with baby steps, in relation to managing the game and getting into position where the opposition are under pressure and capitalising on that.”