EDINBURGH back row David Denton is hoping that he can make young Perpignan star Tommy Allan wonder what might have been by helping Edinburgh to a Heineken Cup victory at Murrayfield this evening.
A host of French sides have fallen in the Scottish capital –Toulouse (twice), Racing Metro, Castres (twice), Stade Francais and Grenoble – and the hosts finished their 2004-5 campaign with a comprehensive 40-17 defeat of today’s opponents.
Denton was hoping to face Alasdair Strokosch, his teammate and rival in the Scotland back row, but the French outfit have opted to again rest the Scottish flanker against his former club. However, there is fresh “Scottish” interest in the Catalan side, with Tommy Allan being picked to start at fly-half.
The 20-year-old was on the pathway to full Scottish honours this season after coming through the Scotland age-grade ranks, but he stunned Murrayfield coaches in the autumn when he switched to Italy, the land of his birth and that of his mother, who played rugby for the women’s Azzurri. The lure of a Test cap immediately, allied to his family background, proved persuasive and he made his debut off the bench against Australia. Allan duly scored his first try in the game and went on to kick two conversions off the bench the following week against Fiji and start the third Test, a 19-14 loss to Argentina, where he chipped in with three first-half penalties before being replaced with 15 minutes to go.
Denton admitted he was disappointed that Allan, whose uncle John played for Edinburgh Accies, like Denton, and Scotland and South Africa, had not followed his path from the under-20s into the full Scotland set-up. “He is two years younger than me so we didn’t play together,” said Denton, “but he looks a good player and it is disappointing that someone with Scottish heritage is playing for Italy.
“We don’t need to be chasing players around, though, so there is not much else we could have done. I am looking forward to playing against him this weekend.”
The fact that the Heineken Cup is rumbling back into town brings mixed emotions for many after Edinburgh managed just two wins in their first four pool matches. But the victory away to Gloucester has left the door slightly ajar to the potential of qualification for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals if they beat Perpignan and Munster, and the Irishmen fall away to Gloucester, or the last four of the Amlin Challenge Cup if results fall their way.
Coach Alan Solomons has made just one change to the side that was to face Glasgow on New Year’s Day, before the Scotstoun flood intervened, lock Izak van der Westhuizen returning for Ollie Atkins. The coach is hopeful that the players will benefit from the weather-enforced break, and Denton believes that the Heineken Cup brings its own motivations. He has only been involved for the past two years but already has endured a unique high and rock-bottom low of life at Edinburgh.
“I love playing in the Heineken Cup and I have always loved it,” he said. “To be honest, us young guys coming into the Edinburgh team were really naive about the Heineken Cup. We thought it was quite easy because the first time we played in it we got to the semi-final.
“But we got a very rude awakening the season after that when we did not win a game. It is a tough competition. If you lose one game you are just about out of it and two games you are pretty much.
“But we still have a fighting chance to get through to the knock-out stages. It is really exciting and puts a lot more interest on the game from an outside point of view, and makes it more exciting for us.
“We are trying to make sure the squad moves in the right direction. We have a good base of players here and the coaches have helped us learning their system.
“It took a while, longer than the coaches thought it would, for us to get to grips with the changes, but now we have, we can start pushing forward.”
There was a hope that Edinburgh would build on that unforgettable run to the semi-finals in 2012 and, while it does not materialise immediately, there is a sense in Denton’s reflections that it has left a legacy, especially as a French team returns to Murrayfield.
“I will never forget that Toulouse game when there were 38,000 people watching. It was something special. Obviously we had more watching the Scotland games at Murrayfield but those 38,000 people were just as loud as I have heard at Murrayfield.
“It is a different environment when you play for your club. The people of Edinburgh got really behind us that day and I would love to put them in a position to do that again. The people who turned up for that Toulouse game showed the fan base we have in the city. Edinburgh is a massive city but, from what I understand from the stats, a massive percentage of people who watch Scotland games are from Edinburgh.
“We need to tap into that and the only way we are going to get that done is by getting results. Beating French teams at home is a very good place to start and we are capable of doing that.”
Perpignan currently languish in 11th spot in the French Top 14 and are bottom of Pool 6 in the Heineken Cup, their solitary win being the one over Edinburgh at the Stade Aime Giral when the Scots let a leading position slip with errors they curse now.
Denton failed a fitness test on a badly bruised bicep before that game, but was there to see how the team slipped out of the plan in the second half and were ruthlessly exposed.
“We have shown in the last month or two that we are a real, physical side and that is how we are going to win rugby matches,” he added. “So long as we stick rigidly to our system and play a mature game we can do it.”
Edinburgh Rugby team to play Perpignan at Murrayfield Stadium tomorrow night in Heineken Cup Round 5 (Saturday 11 January, kick-off 6pm)
Team to face Perpignan
15 Jack Cuthbert
14 Dougie Fife
13 Nick De Luca
12 Ben Atiga
11 Tom Brown
10 Greig Tonks
9 Greig Laidlaw
1 Alasdair Dickinson
2 Ross Ford
3 Willem Nel
4 Grant Gilchrist
5 Izak van der Westhuizen
6 Cornell Du Preez
7 Roddy Grant
8 David Denton
16 Aleki Lutui
17 Wicus Blaauw
18 Geoff Cross
19 Ollie Atkins
20 Tomas Leonardi
21 Grayson Hart
22 Carl Bezuidenhout
23 Matt Scott