Warriors’ Grant Gilchrist hopes to stay out of A&E this year

Best arm forward: Grant Gilchrists injury record is poor. Photograph: SNS Group/Craig Watson

Best arm forward: Grant Gilchrists injury record is poor. Photograph: SNS Group/Craig Watson

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You could write a 30,000 word PHD study on why Edinburgh fall short of where they should be in the Pro12 and still only scratch the surface but there is one thing that we can say with some certainty; the prolonged absence of the giant lock Grant Gilchrist did them no favours.

The one-off Scotland skipper played exactly 30 minutes in the Pro12 last season, coming off the bench against the Ospreys and… and… nothing. That was his total contribution and even then it was worth less than you might imagine, as we shall see.

The season before that he managed four league starts and one appearance off the pine. Gilchrist would have been more use to Edinburgh had he retired to a Tibetan monastery: at least he’d be able to pray for success.

Having scarcely missed a game in his first three years as a pro, Gilchrist scarcely played one in the next two seasons. It started with that double arm break against Lyon in Europe at the tail end of 2014. That operation didn’t work so another was scheduled early the following year. He played in the Rugby World Cup but damaged his groin in only the second game, against the USA, and when that was sorted he broke his arm… again. If you and I have been frustrated by all this, try to imagine how he must feel.

“There was no holiday for me this season,” Gilchrist states. “I didn’t want one. I didn’t need one. I was just hungry to get involved. That groin injury was the big frustrating one because I felt like I was back in it.

“After my groin operation in mid February I played against the Ospreys and re-fractured my radius in my forearm which was the latest one [injury]. This time round things couldn’t have gone smoother. The surgeon did a great job and the rehab has been really easy, I’ve had no bother.

“I came on [against the Ospreys] quite early, around 50 minutes and I did it [the injury] just when I came on and, well, because of the embarrassment of being injured in the first game back I just played on, which is not really advisable. If it had been like the first time I did it… if you break both bones in your arm you are in a lot of bother.

“Your natural instinct is to hide your arm. I thought I was fine but I was just diving at people using my head and being an idiot but I was just so frustrated at the way that things had panned out. I think I knew deep down but I was just telling myself, ‘you’re fine, you’re fine’ with the adrenaline and the embarrassment of it.”

After rejecting overtures from Toulon in the summer, or having them rejected by Edinburgh, a new season offers a fresh start for Gilchrist who is understandably keen to showcase what he can do, having watched more rugby than he has played. The big man has been appointed Edinburgh skipper in a job share with Stuart McInally having previously led Scotland, in Argentina, and having been appointed Scotland captain for the 2015 Six Nations without ever setting foot on the pitch.

The dual captaincy is a head scratcher (do he and McInally toss a coin to see who tosses the coin?), one captain wants to take the three points, the other fancies a five-metre lineout. Gilchrist is confident it will be alright on the night.

“At the weekend we were both on the field and I said to Stuart, ‘you can speak to the ref and I will speak to the boys’ and I think that is the more important role anyway, making sure we are having those little conversations during the game, problem solving, whatever it may be. I think it’s good.”

And so to the elephant which has resided in Edinburgh’s front parlour for so long that it is impossible to ignore that nasty whiff of failure that pervades the club. Eighth, eighth, ninth is how the club fared these last three seasons. They were sitting pretty in second place early in 2016 having beaten Glasgow twice, albeit with the benefit of home advantage both times, only to tumble down the ranks to finish nine points off the Champions Cup slot, 15 from the Pro12 play-offs.

Those back-to-back wins over Glasgow suggest that this club should be doing much better with the players at Alan Solomons’ disposal but there is something missing from their DNA, something that Glasgow have that Edinburgh have yet to unearth, and with just two pro teams Scottish rugby can’t afford to have one of them firing blanks.

“We are not beating about the bush, we are not happy,” argues Gilchrist. “We think we are progressing but the rate of progress needs to be way higher.

“But it will be down to how well we live our culture week in and week out and drive our standards. So far it’s been really good but the test for us comes down the line.

“We finished eighth/ninth pretty consistently so we need a big shift to finish in the top four. It’s fine saying it but we need to get on with getting better at every session that we do – individual skill – we are trying to do everything possible to make this team successful.

“If we look back at the Heineken Cup run [in 2012] I feel that we had a really solid 15, maybe 20 players but we didn’t have the squad that could handle being competitive week in and week out. That is where Glasgow got it right, they had 40 guys that could rotate, whereas 15 versus 15 we could beat Toulouse, we could beat Racing Metro away from home, but you can’t have 15 guys winning every week.

“You don’t win a Pro12 with 15 guys, you win a Pro 12 with 40 guys. If you look at the last couple of years, I have not helped, I haven’t been around a lot and we’ve been unlucky with guys picking up injuries so we haven’t had that depth.”

Gilchrist insists that Edinburgh have a deeper pool to pick from this season and with him, Fraser McKenzie and Nasi Manu all back in harness he may be on to something, although South African flanker Cornell du Preez misses the start of the season.

The team moves to Myreside in January and emerging from the Union’s shadow at Murrayfield should help the club forge some independence.

“We have an identity as a group of players,” says Gilchrist, “but where we are trying to improve is having an identity as a club… what Edinburgh Rugby means to the wider public.”

Whether the Myreside move will help Edinburgh play a little faster and looser is anyone’s guess because they have showcased a limited game plan on Solomons’ watch with “Made in South Africa” running through it like a stick of rock.

No-one would complain if it had brought years of success but any forwards steps Edinburgh have taken have been baby ones.

After picking up just two try bonuses last season, might it be time to loosen the reins just a little?

“We’re not stupid, we have played a conservative brand of rugby for a number of years and we know that that has to change,” says Gilchrist. “But we have some non-negotiables about how we play the game and we are not going to turn into Glasgow overnight.”

No-one wants that to happen, Scottish rugby needs diversity of style and it needs Edinburgh to succeed on their own terms, no-one else’s.

But if Gilchrist can steer clear of A&E, his club could yet turn into contenders over the course of one season.

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