Di Rollo starts French lessons in the hardest school of all
SPARE a thought for Edinburgh's young squad as they approach the Heineken Cup. They find themselves in Pool 6 alongside the runners-up from last season in Leicester and Dublin's finest Leinster, but the capital side must renew an auld acquaintance with the only team to have won the competition on three occasions, Stade Toulousain. The club are celebrating their centenary, and will wish to mark it in style.
Edinburgh seem drawn to the French aristocrats like moths to a flame. They drew Toulouse two years ago, losing by one converted try at home (13-20) before suffering a hiding in the south of France (35-13), and they also played them three times in 2003-04. The teams will meet again on Saturday afternoon at Murrayfield, and there is a worry that the Scots will suffer the fate of the moth and end up as smouldering casualties because the squad lost 286 caps' worth of experience in the summer exodus.
Whatever happens on the day, expectations are a lot lower than in December 2003 when Edinburgh enjoyed their solitary victory against Toulouse, at Meadowbank. The 23-16 win gave them their only taste of the European Cup quarter-finals: inevitably they were drawn against Toulouse again, and lost. That remains Scotland's only appearance in the last eight of the European competition, and this Edinburgh are unlikely to change the statistic.
Four years ago it was a different story. Toulouse were, if anything, a more frightening prospect than now, though the others in Edinburgh's pool, Leeds and the Ospreys, were nowhere near the quality that Andy Robinson's team face. Edinburgh coach Frank Hadden fielded a handy team full of attacking intent to claim the Toulouse scalp. Props Allan Jacobsen and Craig Smith remain in harness and the half-back pairing was Chris Paterson and Mike Blair, but the real strength of the side comprised the back five of the scrum: Scott Murray, Nathan Hines, Todd Blackadder, Simon Taylor and Simon Cross, plus 20-year- old Ally Hogg, who made an appearance off the bench.
Marcus di Rollo was cast in his favoured outside-centre slot, against the side he now represents after signing for Toulouse ahead of the World Cup. The former Watsonian, who has a two-year deal with an option to extend it to three, recalls the notable victory:
"I think that we started that season pretty well, but we knew what we were up against: it was Toulouse we were playing after all. We had won the week before [in the first round] and we were quietly confident of doing well that day. Chris [Paterson] had been played at No.10 throughout the European campaign, and we were playing some good rugby, throwing the ball about, a very expansive style.
"I think the game hinged on a Brendan Laney try in the second half. He did a hitch-kick about the 22, and while Brendan was accused of being too slow, he covered that last 20 metres pretty quickly, and that was with one arm raised in the air!"
Di Rollo says that he is settling in nicely at Toulouse, and already has a couple of French lessons under his belt. He claims that, while the French players will help you out in English on the pitch, they understandably prefer the foreigners to make an effort in their language when off it. If Di Rollo struggles with the lingo, he will be no worse than All Black scrum-half Byron Kelleher, who has also joined Toulouse.
Di Rollo played in the final warm-up, then got a few minutes against Dax in the first league fixture of the season. Any game time is a bonus at this early stage, since the squad boast an embarrassment of midfield riches in French duo Yannick Jauzion and Florian Fritz, Fijian centre Maleli Kunavore and several promising youngsters.
In an odd way, Di Rollo's move to Toulouse has seen him come full circle. He started professional life throwing the ball about under Hadden at Edinburgh, and he insists that Toulouse share that philosophy under their veteran coach, Guy Noves.
"They do have several principles, and that is one of them: keeping the ball in hand. They are very keen on you staying on your feet and off-loading in the tackle, and the onus is very much placed upon the players.
"They don't appear to play a highly- structured game, but they will call maybe one start-up move to get things going, and then the players do as they please, and that has always been my preferred way. It is possible that you can get caught up in a game-plan too much, instead of just reacting to what is front of you.
"It makes sense if you think about it: after all, you don't have to tell players like Jauzion or Vincent Clerc that, if a gap opens up, then run through it."
Noves has picked the newcomer's brain about Edinburgh: he was in charge four years ago when Toulouse were mugged at Meadowbank.
However, the French giants could not afford to concentrate on European matters last week, since they faced a crunch tie in the Top 14 yesterday afternoon against their big-city rivals from Paris, Stade Francais. Di Rollo did not make the cut for that match, and he is unsure whether he will start against his old side come Saturday. "I am still getting to grips with the calls. I'll just have to wait and see."
Ironically, if Di Rollo does venture on to the field, he may find himself up against Edinburgh's young centre partnership in Ben Cairns and Nick de Luca, both of whom are vying to be the long-term solution to Scotland's No.13 shirt, that was once filled by Di Rollo.
If the centre harbours ambitions of rekindling his international career - and he is scheduled to chat with Hadden when the coach returns from holiday - then he could not have picked a better team in Europe to supply him with the chance to shine. Provided, of course, that he gets the chance to start.
GROUP BY GROUP
POOL 1 Benetton Treviso Dragons London Irish Perpignan
ONE of the easier groups in the competition, with Perpignan the firm favourites to top the standings when the smoke clears. They have the help of recent recruits Chris Cusiter from Scotland and Springbok Percy Montgomery, the undoubted star of the World Cup final. The other teams can all beat each other on their day, but they probably lack the necessary consistency to top the group. The Exiles especially are a shadow of the side that stunned everyone last season, with just two wins to their name in the domestic league.
PREDICTIONS Winners: Perpignan. Losers: Treviso. Look out for: How good Chris Cusiter (pictured) can be behind a big pack.
POOL 2 Bourgoin Gloucester Ospreys Ulster
THIS is a tricky one to call, and it will probably boil down to an ancient Anglo-Welsh rivalry. The west country giants would dearly love to excel on the European stage, and they have a coterie of Scots to help them do so, including coaches Bryan Redpath and Carl Hogg. However, the Ospreys also mean business after missing the quarter-finals last year by the narrowest of margins. Bourgoin sneaked their opening league fixture of the season by two points, but poor Ulster, winners of this contest back in 1999, are stuck at the wrong end of the Magners League.
PREDICTIONS Winners: Ospreys. Losers: Ulster. Look out for: Signs of life from the Ospreys' former wunderkind Gavin Henson.
POOL 3 Bristol Cardiff Blues Harlequins Stade Francais
THE highly-paid mercenaries from Paris have never won the European Cup. Beaten finalists at Murrayfield in 2005 is their best showing to date, but they should top this group with something to spare. Cardiff have recruited actively - they can field four former All Blacks - and will ensure that the top of the table remains competitive. Quins have been going well in the domestic stuff with coach Dean Richards a ready-made replacement for Brian Ashton, if England decide to ditch everyone's favourite uncle. The English teams will back themselves to win at home, but probably lack the requisite European experience to win on the road.
PREDICTIONS Winners: Stade Francais. Losers: Bristol. Look out for: That garish Stade Francais Hawaiian shirt.
POOL 4 Biarritz Olympique Glasgow Warriors Saracens Viadana
A TOUGH but not impossible group for Glasgow to emerge from, though the Warriors will need to improve on recent league form to qualify. Biarritz are favourites to top the group, despite drawing with minnows Albi recently in the French Top 14, but Sarries could yet gatecrash the party since they have enjoyed a useful start to the Guinness league. Look out for Scots Calvin Howarth, Garry Law and Stuart Moffat turning out in Viadana's colours, while Gordon Ross has joined Iain Fullarton at the London club along with a half-decent lineout forward from New Zealand.
PREDICTIONS Winners: Saracens. Losers: Viadana. Look out for: Sarries' former All Black lock Chris Jack.
POOL 5 Clermont Auvergne Wasps Scarlets Munster
THE current cup-holders Wasps have to face two teams with impeccable European credentials in Celtic giants Munster and Llanelli, though there is a suspicion in both cases that neither are in the best of health right now. Mind you, nor are Wasps with just one victory in the Guinness Premiership going into this weekend. Still, with their English internationals trickling back to duty, the London club should be strong enough to face down any upstarts. Their long-standing fly-half, Alex King, will play against his former colleagues after signing for Clermont Auvergne in the summer.
PREDICTIONS Winners: Wasps. Losers: Scarlets. Look out for: John Smit, who will play for the French club - if he's done celebrating that World Cup win.
POOL 6 Edinburgh Leicester Tigers Leinster Toulouse
THIS is the toughest of the groups by a distance of several country miles: the pool of pain, for want of a better description. The pedigree on show here would put a Crufts winner to shame, as Europe's top- ranked team, Leicester, line up against the French giants and Brian O'Driscoll's Dublin outfit keen to put a disappointing World Cup behind them. Quite what a young and inexperienced Edinburgh squad will manage, goodness only knows, but a solitary home win against this lot would probably be something to boast about come closing time down in the city's Grassmarket.
PREDICTIONS Winners: Tigers. Losers: Edinburgh. Look out for: Leicester's livewire scrum-half, Harry Ellis, who is fit again.
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