THOMOND Park in Limerick is renowned for inspiring and intimidating qualities and it takes little guesswork to predict the favourites for the Heineken Cup pool finale at Munster, but few know what this burgeoning Edinburgh side is capable of.
Head coach Alan Solomons rewarded the Edinburgh 23 that produced a stirring win over Perpignan last weekend by sticking with them for tomorrow’s trip across the Irish Sea, but after praising the performance, and the defence in particular, he insisted that it was still some way from being a complete display.
Perpignan are languishing in the bottom ranks of the French Top 14 so are not a top side at present. It is all relative, of course, and news that the French clubs this week agreed a new five-year deal with Canal+ for TV rights that will inject around £5 million a year into each club – that is before the £5-£15m their benefactors “invest” – only underlined how the Celtic clubs are in real danger of being left behind in Europe.
But for Edinburgh the aim is to compete with the Celts first and that is where tomorrow will provide a litmus test of what stage Solomons’ rejuvenation project is at as we move into his sixth month at the helm. It is a work in progress but Munster will have viewed a different Edinburgh side on the video this week, one that has a steelier edge in defence, a more prosaic game-plan but a new confidence that says if you are going to beat them you will have to work at it for 80 minutes.
That has not always been the case in the past. Two or three errors, two or three quick tries, and typically that was Edinburgh beat. Twice Heineken Cup winners, Munster will be confident and Solomons accepts that his side remain rank underdogs – although the South African veteran of a world record 17 Test victories with the Boks is getting a feel for the Scots enthusiasm for springing surprises and said victory and qualification for the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals is a potent motivation.
“One has to have regard to where we were and where we’ve come from,” he said. “We have a very, very tough task. Munster are hitting their straps as a team, players are playing for a home quarter-final and some for a place in the Ireland international team, and as a club they will be determined to put right the loss they sustained here – so it’s a big challenge for our players. But I thought the Perpignan performance was very good. We’re a long way from the finished product and we’re well aware of that so our feet are firmly on the ground. But the players all deserved to be selected for what will be a fantastic game at Thomond.
“We know we still have a considerable way to go and we will be a better defensive side. We also know it’s important for us to back up the performance and we know the challenges we face in trying to do that.”
Solomons is not one for getting ahead of himself, but is a methodical step-by-step man, and one senses that he prefers the notion of his side being written off by all but the players themselves. His counterpart at Munster, the Kiwi coach Rob Penney, may already have guided his side into the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, but he is gunning for a home tie and has named a strong side to go out and get it. After defeating Gloucester 20-7 at Kingsholm, he brings back Stephen Archer and Dave Kilcoyne in the front row, Paul O’Connell starts alongside Dave Foley in the second row and Peter O’Mahony remains captain.
Conor Murray is back at scrum-half after injury, James Downey and Casey Laulala present a potent centre pairing and Felix Jones, Keith Earls and Johne Murphy bring pace to burn in the back three with Simon Zebo, also back from injury, on the bench.
Edinburgh’s 29-23 win over Munster in the opening round of the Heineken Cup pointed to a new resilience but the Irishmen reacted to that by winning 11 of their next 12 games in league and cup competitions.
A sign that Edinburgh are maturing comes in the shape of 23-year-old wing Tom Brown, who will lead the team out to mark his surprisingly quick 50th appearance. But with that comes the pressure to step out of the shadows, for Brown and others as the two men who scored the crucial tries in the win over Munster, Tim Visser and Matt Scott, are both now injured. And that is part of the unknown that is Edinburgh at present. The club last won in Munster on 13 October, 2006, a 21-10 victory secured by tries from Chris Paterson, Simon Webster and Alasdair Dickinson. Only Donncha O’Callaghan survives from that Munster squad that had just clinched their first Heineken trophy and only prop Dickinson and Greig Laidlaw remain for Edinburgh. It was that long ago.
But Laidlaw remembers it and believes that his squad is stronger than the one then. He has also played in innumerable close encounters since, and knows that if the defence shown against Perpignan is repeated and Edinburgh bring their increasing physicality to the party at the set-piece, breakdown and with ball in hand, the pendulum of expectation can swing.
Then we will have a game, and Edinburgh a chance at a unique Heineken Cup double that, irrespective of claiming an Amlin Challenge Cup last eight spot or not, will prove to be another significant step forward.
Incidentally, Edinburgh supporters staying at home can watch the game in the West Stand supporters’ suites of Murrayfield Stadium. Doors open at noon and two giant projector screens will show the game and a following European Cup match with the bar open and food served throughout the day.
Celebration or drowning sorrows? The odds are against the Scots, but Munster are acutely aware that Solomons’ side are proving increasingly difficult to keep down.
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE