ALAN Solomons’ controversial campaign to turn around the fortunes of Edinburgh could not be made more clear than in a team selected to face Connacht tonight that includes just four players brought through the Scottish system.
The former Springbok coach has made no bones about his plan, shaped after a series of discussions with the SRU over what they felt was needed in the capital. It centres around beefing up the strength of Edinburgh by flying in players from around the world, some Scottish-qualified and many who are not, or not yet, to provide a more competitive and stable platform on which to develop young Scots.
It is hugely controversial, not least at a time when Scotland’s leading players are stumbling on the international stage and largely as too few are playing regular rugby of any intensity.
Solomons’ response is to take a look across the Irish Sea, to where he set in place similar foundations at Ulster from 2001-4. The Irish province was stocked with a core of South Africans, and other non-Irish players, became a title contender among the Celtic clubs and, once at that competitive level, gradually reduced the foreign influence to a handful of world-class players while bringing through more native talent.
It is a strategy, but, while in a country that does not have four provincial teams, the impatience brewing with the national side suggests it will need to produce quick results to avoid the critics.
The signs were improving before the floods arrived. After a poor start to the season, that yielded just two wins in the first six games, Edinburgh have now claimed six wins in ten, including beating full-strength Leinster and Perpignan teams.
However, they have played just two Heineken Cup matches and no league games in nearly eight weeks – the last outing the defeat away to Munster – due to games with Glasgow and Newport Gwent Dragons being flooded off. So they are desperate to get their season moving again at the Sportsground. The big feat this season that would quell some criticism would be a place in the Pro12’s top four, and a first appearance in the play-offs. That was an impossible dream, and certainly remains a near-impossible task with the team 18 points off fourth-placed Ospreys, even with two games in hand. But with the Heineken Cup – or whatever European tournament emerges next season – likely to only include the top six Pro12 sides automatically, a top-half finish would be a big and necessary step forward.
Edinburgh are eighth, six points behind the Scarlets, in sixth spot, with two games in hand on them, and if they were to beat the seventh-placed Dragons in that re-arranged game at Rodney Parade the Scots would overtake them. So the top six is eminently possible if Edinburgh string wins together now. They are missing skipper Greig Laidlaw and David Denton to Scotland duty this evening, but Grant Gilchrist and Nick de Luca have been released to start, and Ross Ford and Geoff Cross are on the bench. And this is where the new-look takes centre stage.
In come Andries Strauss, Mike Coman, Carl Bezuidenhout and James Hilterbrand for their first starts, which will add to the rustiness of the team. By contrast, Connacht name an all-Ireland-qualified backline and a mostly Irish pack, as they continue to fulfil their unstated role as Ireland’s fourth/development province.
Smarting from a narrow loss at Glasgow last week, they are eager, under skipper John Muldoon and former Scotland forwards’ coach Pat Lam, to avoid a Scots double. Connacht are missing Gavin Duffy, Willie Faloon, Brett Wilkinson and Kyle Tonetti to injury, while ex-Glasgow duo Dan Parks and Aly Muldowney are on the bench.