TWO of Edinburgh’s most senior players, captain Greig Laidlaw and centre Nick de Luca, have assumed greater responsibility this week in a bid to improve their team’s fortunes, with the pair taking a lead role in training ahead of tomorrow night’s 1872 Cup match against Glasgow at Scotstoun.
Laidlaw and De Luca were both involved in Scotland’s disappointing defeat by Tonga in Aberdeen last month and, along with numerous team-mates, spoke of a desire borne of deep frustration to return to their club side and work harder to effect improvement. Edinburgh head coach Michael Bradley revealed at yesterday’s team announcement that the players had asked – and were given – permission to help prepare the team for tomorrow’s contest.
“The thing about derbies from a coach’s point of view is that you get a feeling from the players,” explained Bradley. “The players are very much aware that it [1872 Cup] is one versus one, very personal, and, like guys in previous weeks, Greig and Nick took lead roles this week.
“They came to the coaches and said ‘look, we want to present on Glasgow in attack and defence’ and that was great. When you’ve got that kind of intensity and desire coming from the players then we’re in a good place. Whether it materialises that we win the match or not is another factor, but you know you’re heading in the right direction and it’s good to see that.”
Laidlaw explained that there were different reasons behind his and De Luca’s urge to lead the message to the players on how they might exploit the Warriors’ weaknesses, insisting that it did not suggest any lack of faith in the coaches but rather a simple desire on the part of players to take more responsibility.
“It’s sometimes good messages coming from within,” he said. “The analysis that Michael and the coaches do is usually top-notch, but we just thought we’d freshen it up this week.
“Nick was top-class in his stuff. He’s a character and he was getting pretty excited about the game, and it’s important that there is a message coming from within the squad that we want to win these games.”
Was it the result of Scotland’s failure, and the criticism of players letting the coaches down?
“Yes, I think so. But also being the captain of the club I feel I have a responsibility to make sure it is driven from within. I like to think I’m a hard worker, do the extras and leave no stone unturned to give myself every possible chance of performing and winning the game.”
Another reason, he admitted, was the simple fact that the Warriors have won the 1872 Cup for the past three seasons and his side need to change that run, and erase any impression that Glasgow want this cup more than his side.
“That’s been an impression, whether it’s been real. We’ve definitely been up for the games in the past but Glasgow have won them. Credit to them for that. But, yeah, that’s one of the reasons maybe this week why we presented, because I want that to be reversed. I want Edinburgh to win.”
A rise in intensity in the Edinburgh camp, however, may also cost the team two leading players, with De Luca and winger Lee Jones suffering injuries to the face and head in training. Bradley will wait until this morning before making a decision on whether either or both are fit enough to take the field at Scotstoun, with James King and Dougie Fife standing by to come in. The coach has also left his options open at half-back.
Bradley is contemplating a switch for Laidlaw back to his old scrum-half position with new stand-off Piers Francis providing a new threat to the Warriors at No 10 but, if De Luca does not make it, Bradley may stick with Laidlaw at stand-off and start Richie Rees at scrum-half to keep Laidlaw’s experience in the pivotal role.
Bradley acknowledged that the injuries had caused him to shuffle training a bit, but was relaxed about the possibilities and allowed himself a wry smile when asked if the delay in confirming his line-up was really only about keeping Glasgow guessing.
“Coming into this match it’s a special time of the year with the derby matches against Glasgow Warriors and I think that Edinburgh Rugby have set our stall in the sense that we want to win the trophy and the balance of these two matches.
“We have cranked up the training accordingly and, in doing so, have caused ourselves a bit of an injury worry but we are navigating our way through that and so have trained in a couple of different ways and with different combinations. We’re not fazed by it.
“The guys who will step in if Lee and Nick don’t make it have played in recent weeks so there are no dramas there, and Greig is very comfortable in both positions, and the team has functioned well with Greig at nine and Piers at ten, and with Richie at nine and Greig at ten.”
Ben Cairns’ return from injury was short due to a hamstring injury but top try-scorer Tim Visser and inside centre Matt Scott return to the backline, props Allan Jacobsen and Willem Nel are preferred to John Yapp and Geoff Cross alongside hooker Ross Ford in the front-row, and Heineken Cup-tied lock Izak van der Westhuizen returns to partner Grant Gilchrist. The pack is completed by the back row of Roddy Grant, Stuart McInally and returning blindside flanker David Denton.
Last year at this time Bradley was concerned at facing Glasgow twice inside a week, with hopes high of still being able to qualify for the Heineken Cup semi-finals. As a result, he sent out a side with ten changes for the second match and all but handed over the 1872 Cup. It is a different story this time as Edinburgh have lost all four pool matches in Europe and trail Glasgow by seven points in the RaboDirect PRO12. They are eight points off the play-offs.
Bradley said: “Derbies are special occasions and all of our supporters, players and management are very much on song in terms of believing that it’s about time we won these back-to-backs. Glasgow are our closest and keenest rivals. Last year we were 11th in the PRO12 and Glasgow were in the play-offs, and that wasn’t a pleasant picture for us. I’m sure they weren’t too happy to see us in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup while they played well but didn’t get out of their group.
“And the boys are very conscious of that [rivalry] when they go to an international training session. There’s plenty of slagging goes on and you’d like to have the upper hand. Our supporters are the same and, with 140 years of history, there’s a lot at stake really.”
And, just in case Edinburgh supporters wondered what Laidlaw might have said to his players, whether he was trying to avoid suggestions of trials for Scotland or that tomorrow night is ‘just another game’, he added: “There’s no getting away from it – of course it’s personal. You want to go into the game and play better than the opposite player in your position.
“At the same time, consistency is the key to playing for Scotland and, when you have aspirations to play for Scotland, as I have, you’d like to think that they [coaches] wouldn’t base it on two games. But, if you can play well in these games, it will enhance your chances.”