A YEAR ago Edinburgh were heading into the Heineken Cup with the heavy weight of expectation as Michael Bradley strived to prove that his side’s run to the semi-finals was not a one-off.
Not any more. The picture is so different 12 months on as Edinburgh prepare to welcome Munster to Murrayfield this afternoon that comparing then with now would be like measuring a Rembrandt against a Picasso. Or, more accurately perhaps, what fleetingly seemed like a Rembrandt with a schoolchild’s ‘masterpiece’.
A new South African management team of Alan Solomons and Omar Mouneimne, alongside forwards coach Steve Scott, a past season that yielded a six-game whitewash in Europe and a disastrous league campaign that shows only flickering signs of being improved upon is not sparking a mad scramble for Murrayfield tickets.
But, mercifully for the beleaguered Edinburgh support, at the heart of the story are the rocks of consistency Greig Laidlaw and Ross Ford. Laidlaw spoke after Sunday’s loss at Cardiff about how he felt the defensive patterns, attacking plays, set-piece and training sessions were all much improved on those under Bradley, and believes that the Heineken Cup will help to lift the team back to the intensity of performance they were once famed for. Ford was more cagey yesterday. Coming in to speak to the media after Solomons, whose mantra is that this is “just another game”, the Scotland and British and Irish Lions hooker played down talk of emulating the magical 2012 Heineken Cup ride in a pool that also features Perpignan and Gloucester. He admitted it was hard to tell whether that success had created a false belief in the squad, or not, but he retains optimism looking forward.
“Tomorrow will tell us a lot,” he said. “We have had five or six weeks now to drill our systems in defence, our kicking game and our attack. We are in a better place than we were six weeks ago but it is a constant process of getting better. We know that if we get our performance right, the result will come on the back of that.
“This team have a lot of ability, so it is about being consistent with execution and game strategy, and not letting teams off the hook. It is just being controlled and not losing sight of what you are trying to achieve and what your target is.
“Everyone is getting caught up in Heineken Cup fever, the fans love it and TV makes a big thing of it, and it is a great tournament and great to be involved in. But it is not a fresh start or anything like that, just another game. It is a week on from Cardiff and is another game where we can put systems in place, stay disciplined and work hard on putting our systems there to the best of our ability. To that end, it is just another game in the season.
“Though the run [in 2011-12] was good and enjoyable for everyone involved it is two years down the line now and we are in a very different place with new coaches, new players. Two years ago is irrelevant now.”
Edinburgh are bolstered by the return from injury of Matt Scott, who came off the bench last week for Ben Atiga. Atiga suffered a dislocated finger, continuing his wretched battle with injuries, but with Scott joined by Nick de Luca there is a new strength about the Edinburgh attack. Up front Grant Gilchrist comes into the second row in place of the injured Izak van der Westhuizen, and South African Cornell Du Preez makes his first start in the back row in place of Tomas Leonardi after his debut off the bench last week was marred by a yellow card.
The Scots face a Munster side also moving in a different direction to two years ago, with their Kiwi coach Rob Penney, assisted by Anthony Foley and Simon Mannix, expanding their game from the forward-dominated style that was successful over the past decade but lost its dominance last term.
There is a familiarity about their line-up, however, with Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, Simon Zebo and Conor Murray world-class performers in the back division, and while skipper Paul O’Connell may not have the same armoury around him in the pack that he once enjoyed – veterans Donncha O’Callaghan and BJ Botha start on the bench – they are a strong set of forwards with plenty of European experience.
Ford knows what to expect, recalling the Pro12 meeting in Cork in September that ended in a 34-23 home win.
“It is very different to the Munster teams from days gone by,” he added. “We are in a better place than we were five weeks ago in terms of understanding the systems and executing them. It is still going to be a tough game. There has been a big change of personnel in the Munster team, with them bringing in a few players we did not see at the start of the season, but we are looking forward to it.”