THE SRU and Edinburgh may have been slow to get moving in building their new squad for 2013-14, but the arrival of two Australians this week will be followed by more new faces as the recruitment process now steps up a gear.
That was the pledge from David Davies, the Edinburgh managing director who has taken a low-key approach since his appointment in April, with SRU chief executive Mark Dodson appearing to be the main player in the recruitment of coaches and players so far.
New second row Ollie Atkins, who has left the Waratahs after just one season to pursue ambitions in his father’s homeland, revealed that it was Scotland head coach and SRU director of rugby Scott Johnson who had sealed his move and that of Waratahs scrum-half Grayson Hart on two-year deals in the Scottish capital.
Asked whether it had been new coach Alan Solomons, Davies or Dodson that proved most persuasive, the genial 6ft 6in Sydneysider replied: “It was Scott Johnson. We caught up about a couple of months ago, and he said there was an opportunity to come over to Edinburgh and I jumped at it.
“I was on a one-year deal with the Waratahs and I spoke to our coach, Michael Cheika, and told him how I felt about the opportunity to come to Edinburgh and he was quite supportive.
“He told me it was very hard-edged rugby over here in Europe and that’s the attitude you’ve got to take to the game, and impose yourself at every opportunity.”
Johnson’s involvement is natural in the sense that part of his remit as director of rugby is to scout new talent and improve the pro sides’ strength, but his role as Scotland coach invites the question of whether the new faces, like Glasgow wing Sean Maitland and new openside Tyrone Holmes, have been signed primarily to add strength to the Scotland squad.
Atkins said: “I’m here first and foremost to play for Edinburgh. That’s why I’ve come here to play and if I can improve my way through Edinburgh and secure a starting spot here, you never know what could happen in the future. At the moment all I’m thinking about is Edinburgh. That [Scotland] was in the back of my mind but the aim was to come here to play for Edinburgh.”
Good, diplomatic answer, but there is no doubting the big carrot for both Atkins, whose father Michael hails from Dunbar, and Hart, whose grandmother Nancy Harvey is a Glaswegian, is the lure of international rugby.
Hart was still undergoing his medical at Murrayfield yesterday so was not available for the media conference, but he was close to joining Glasgow a year ago. That deal fell through and Niko Matawalu was snapped up instead.
Edinburgh supporters will hope that the 6ft 1in Kiwi, with nine Super Rugby games with the Blues and Waratahs under his belt, can spark a similar level of competition to the Fijian in the west, with Greig Laidlaw having been a lone experienced figure stretched across the nine and ten positions at Murrayfield.
Atkins also has a past connection. He spent a gap year coaching rugby at Edinburgh Academy, and playing for the Accies 2nd XV, before returning to study agriculture economics at Sydney University, playing in last year’s Grand Final and being snapped up by the Waratahs.
Davies does not attempt to hide the dual attraction of players to Edinburgh and Scotland, but he sees the players as crucial to developing a ‘USP – unique selling point – at an Edinburgh club labelled a basket-case after last season’s plummet.
“These signings are a statement of intent going forward,” said Davies. “These boys are available for Scotland, it widens our player base to select from and signals our intent to try and find the players to move our ‘basket-case’ forward.
“There will probably be other players of a similar ilk to come in in the next month or so to help the existing player base to go through this season, but one of the issues that goes hand in glove with the coaching situation is that we need to identify what our unique selling point is. When you look at clubs like Leicester, you know what’s on the tin, you are going to get good strong forwards.
“One of the challenges for the coaches in the next season is to come to terms with what we’ve got in the player base and decide what our USP is going to be. I would like to be able to sit here in front of you in 12 months’ time and say that the basket-case is very clearly set in a direction. From my perspective, the fact that we have young, athletic forwards coming in with super 15 experience is a step forward for us.”
Time will tell but Atkins is certainly enjoying a rapid ascent, from university rugby to the Waratahs and a start against the British and Irish Lions in June, and his liking for mobile, athletic rugby would seem to fit in with Edinburgh’s former ‘USP’.
“Playing the Lions was an amazing experience, in a packed house at Sydney Football Stadium and against quality opposition, Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones, but I thought it went reasonably well. Now I’m focused on Edinburgh. I’m going to play my natural game, bring my hard work and tenacity, and hopefully that will help us to become more successful this year.”