EDINBURGH have plenty to reasons to focus on their own performance after beating Munster in the first week of the Heineken Cup, but, as they head to the south of France, they will also be well advised to pay close attention to the manner in which Glasgow came to grief in the same part of the world last Sunday.
Listening to their head coach Alan Solomons speak of how his side has to play in order to outsmart Perpignan tomorrow, backed up by returning flanker Roddy Grant’s plans for the Stade Aime Giral, there was an echo of the words that emanated from the Glasgow camp ahead of their trip to Toulon.
All of that talk came to little as the Warriors fell short of their own expectations. Edinburgh surprised many by overcoming Munster at Murrayfield and, while their improvement on a poor league start will by now have reached France’s Catalan city, they are hoping to deliver a similar shock in Perpignan.
Solomons has rewarded his players for their effort by making just one enforced change, Grant coming into the back row at openside and Cornell du Preez stepping over to the blindside to replace Georgian flanker Dimitri Basilaia, who is carrying a groin injury.
Grant is acutely aware that a replica of Glasgow’s first-half performance in Toulon would rule out their chances of pulling off a third famous win in France, to follow those in Castres and Racing Metro, in the bear pit of a stadium close to the Spanish border.
“I don’t pay much attention to Glasgow’s performance,” he said, “but that [first half] is the key. If you front up and start well against the French sides, it helps you as a team and your own performance, of course, but it also helps you to feed off the crowd, even silence the crowd, and that’s the challenge.
“If you can get that first 20 minutes right then you’re setting yourself up well for the game and to go on and get the win. But we know they will be looking to come out of the box flying to gee up the crowd, so that’s the battle we’re looking forward to.”
Perpignan lost in the Heineken Cup final of 2003, 22-17 to Toulouse, and were crowned Top 14 champions in 2009, but have struggled since. There were concerns last season that the club would lose the core of its side as financial pressures hit the Stade Aime Giral. However, while a handful of players did depart, the core remained, including Scotland flanker Alasdair Strokosch, James Hook, David Marty, hooker and skipper Guilhelm Guirado and England No 8 Luke Narraway.
They have Nicolas Durand back from Toulon, Samoan Daniel Leo, Luke Charteris from Wales, ex-Saracens wing Richard Haughton and Scotland under-20 fly-half Tommy Allan, who is on the verge of joining the Italian squad. The South African scrum-half Dewaldt Duvenage is also a player that Alan Solomons knows well, and is wary of, from his four years in Super Rugby with the Stormers.
With a new president elected in wealthy businessman François Rivière, a multi-millionaire businessman and former government minister, who has already invested around £1million of his own money into Perpignan, lifting their annual budget to €16m, and promised to get the club back to the top of French rugby.
They have won five and lost four in the Top 14 this season, losing only once at home, in their opening game to Stade Francais, but return to their famously hostile stadium having lost 27-22 at Gloucester and knowing another defeat would end Heineken Cup qualification hopes.
Hook scored all their points at Kingsholm, and has been moved from full-back to stand-off for Sunday – Allan is on the bench. Grant acknowledged that he was a conductor he had to rein in.
“Ten is always the target,” he said, with a typical openside’s relish. “He’s the playmaker. As a ball-carrier, you want to run down that channel and, defensively, you want to contain him, get over him and suffocate him. It won’t be a case of flying out of the line or just looking at him, because that can open up other holes, but you do want to control the playmaker in their team.
“Generally, though, their pack is going to be a big challenge for us and for me as a back row, because my job is to stop their momentum, and they are big men.
“It’s going to be a case of fronting up and really getting stuck into them, rather than looking just to contain them. They have good ball players in the back, including Hook, so, like most French sides, a good mix of brutes up front and skilful and ball-carrying backs. But I remember us playing Toulouse at home pretty clearly. They had a big pack and lots of outstanding players and we turned them over, and I’ve played Castres and Racing Metro, and personally I’ve always enjoyed playing French sides. The crowd will be pretty hostile, but I think you can feed off a hostile home crowd as well, if you don’t go into your shell.”
Edinburgh set a new bar last weekend, a new sign of a team emerging from a troubled period, and, while it would be unexpected for them to follow it with a win in Perpignan, a strong start might play interesting games with the confidence the Scots are carrying from an opening-day success and the worries in a home camp striving to bounce back from defeat.
“Let’s be honest,” said Solomons. “We face a massive challenge, not just because we are playing Perpignan, who are one of the top Top 14 sides, but the Catalans have a massive amount of pride and they need to get the win after defeat to Gloucester.
“We are a side that are building and developing. We had a mini-peak at the weekend, so to come off the back of that, travel to Perpignan and play, is a huge challenge. But that is how our team is going to develop, by meeting those challenges.”
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