iT ISN’T easy being an Edinburgh Rugby fan. Which is one reason they are an endangered species.
The loss to Gloucester last weekend saw the club occupy its habitual apartment in the basement of their Heineken Cup pool as if the competition commissionaire had greeted them with a broad smile and purred: “Your usual suite, gentlemen.”
Glasgow are dogged by an off-field court case but Edinburgh have no such excuse. The club boasts a decent, experienced core of players who can perform pretty well when they put their mind to it, because they did exactly that in beating Munster in the very first European outing of the season. The club is now financed in line with teams in the top half of the Aviva Premiership. It’s cash that, on all available evidence, the SRU would be better off placing on the 3.30 at Musselburgh. Edinburgh used this extra funding to make 13 new summer signings, almost an entire team of seasoned professionals, and still Gloucester, on the back of five consecutive league losses, saw them off with relative ease.
The only constant is hopeless inconsistency but just why did Edinburgh perform so admirably against Munster but so utterly abysmally against Gloucester, who they meet again this afternoon at Kingsholm?
“It’s a pretty good question, it’s the beauty of sport I guess,” says Greig Tonks, although anyone unfortunate enough to witness last Sunday’s match would demur with the Edinburgh full-back’s use of the word beauty.
“I think that we’re just human beings and not robots so we do make mistakes,” Tonks continues. “It’s just a matter of minimising the amount we are making. Some weeks we don’t make any and it goes right and the next week, such as last week, you make quite a few and then they are compounded on each other and, before you know it, they have scored three tries on the back of our mistakes and then it’s a tough game to get into.
“So it’s about making sure that you don’t do it again, basically, and trying to understand why you did it and improve on it during the week and then try to make sure you don’t do it again the following weekend. I don’t feel that there are any games we’ve gone into where we have been convincingly beaten by a team that has dominated us. I feel that we’ve played them into the game and given them opportunities which any team will score. That’s definitely the case but the good thing is that we are in control and can make amends.
“There is nothing more frustrating that knowing that you are giving teams the win because you are making mistakes yourself. It becomes a bit of a recurring theme. We drop the ball or a pass goes astray or a kick is wrong when you have practised it all week and it just doesn’t happen in the game. If someone did an amazing move and beat us on the outside you’d say ‘well done’ but that’s just not happening. It’s us giving them the ball on a plate and saying ‘here’s our try line, have a couple of tries for free’.”
A quick glance at the match stats suggests that Tonks is on to something. Edinburgh conceded 16 turnovers and missed 19 tackles for a completion rate of 87 per cent, when it should be in the mid-90s. The lineout misfired, losing three out of 12 throws and even the normally reliable Greig Laidlaw was ordinary off the tee with just one successful kick from three.
What Tonks does not address is why. Why did Edinburgh make so many mistakes? Why do players who practise this stuff every day of the week find it so hard to execute in matchday situations? Why was the execution by and large accurate against Munster and so indescribably awful against Gloucester that the paying public deserved a rebate?
The explosions from the coaching box behind the media seats at Murrayfield suggest that the management are as frustrated as everyone else.
At least in Tonks Edinburgh have one reasonably constant performer, because the full-back has enjoyed more starts and more minutes of action than anyone else over the last two seasons. He is also versatile, arriving at the start of last season with the boast that he is equally at home in the midfield. Given the failure of Harry Leonard to kick on from his early promise the whole, festering wound that is Edinburgh’s stand-off position has erupted once again.
“It’s definitely not gone off the menu,” says Tonks, of playing at ten. “Harry’s been playing fly-half and then myself or Greig Laidlaw will be covering ten but he [Laidlaw] is away with Scotland quite a lot so I will be covering fly-half. I still have it in the back of my mind when we are training to know what is going on, not just at the back, but at fly-half when you are right in the middle of it as well.
“I haven’t switched there this season but there are scenarios where, if Harry goes off, then I would be. As it happened that’s not come up yet. If there is potential later in the season then I’d be happy to fill in at fly-half.”
Might that be an easier route into Test match rugby than the No.15 shirt?
“Yeah, you could say that couldn’t you!” the reply comes with a laugh. “There are a few full-backs in Scotland. At the moment I am playing full-back so to switch to fly-half with a view to international rugby would be sort of a longer-term goal I reckon. It’s something I’d definitely consider.”
Tonks is personable. An unruffled, eloquent, well-balanced character who can rationalise the losses, prioritise and compartmentalise his life. But you can’t help wishing that he and the rest of the Edinburgh squad were a little less phlegmatic and a little more feral and hacked off with failure. Edinburgh seem to accept their fate with a shrug of the shoulders, as if destiny rather than they themselves were driving this bus. That’s what comes of losing so often. If winning is a habit so is the opposite and it’s a hard one to break.
On arrival at Murrayfield to interview Tonks, one Edinburgh international was spotted emerging from the biggest 4x4 that money can buy. If abject failure gets you such a lifestyle, why would any athlete bother to go the extra, painful yards required for success? The only answer is pride, both personal and at a collective/club level and, after last weekend’s embarrassing performance, the heart, the soul and especially the desire in this club and its players to make those sacrifices has to be questioned.
In fact, you have to question its entire raison d’etre because, at the moment, all Edinburgh Rugby offers is a good grounding in being a good loser.