MICHAEL Bradley has been credited with transforming the fortunes of Edinburgh Rugby since he took over as head coach last May. But yesterday, the former Ireland scrum-half insisted it was defence coach Billy McGinty, not himself, who deserved the credit.
Speaking as Edinburgh continued to bask in the glow of their stunning 19-14 win over Toulouse in Saturday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final, Bradley also praised the attitude of his players, particularly the younger members of his squad who came to the fore late last year while their more experienced team-mates were in New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup. But it was former rugby league international McGinty whom he singled out for special praise.
“All the guys have worked very hard, and the younger members of the squad really stepped up to the plate earlier in the season when the others were away at the World Cup,” Bradley said yesterday. “And one really important element in our success has been Billy McGinty, who has come in as our defence coach.
“If you look at Edinburgh historically, they have been fantastic going forward, but not so fantastic in defence. Saturday showed how that has changed: Toulouse didn’t score a single point in the second half.
“We’re developing. Edinburgh have traditionally played a very open, expansive game. You just need to balance it a wee bit with the threat of a kicking game or with the forwards taking the ball on as well.”
That balance was shown in the weekend game, as Toulouse at times appeared baffled by the home team’s ability to alter their tactics. The reward for outfoxing the French is a semi-final against Ulster at the end of the month in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
Ulster took their place in the last four with a 22-16 win away to Munster, and having triumphed over Edinburgh home and away already this season the Irish province will go into the 28 April match as strong favourites. Bradley was happy to praise their performances both against his own team and in Limerick
on Sunday, but quietly suggested that Edinburgh too were capable of playing impressively.
“Ulster have beaten us twice this season and played very well,” the coach continued. “In fact, when the match in Belfast was over I went straight to their coach and told him I thought that was the best Ulster performance in the last ten years. They’re a strong outfit with a lot of quality.
“They were pretty close to that level at Murrayfield as well, and they deserve to be where they are in a European semi-final. Beating Munster in a Heineken Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park is a very positive credential.
“That result didn’t surprise me. Like everyone else, I’ve been aware that Ulster are very much moving in the right direction, and they would have travelled to that match with a lot of confidence.
“But we’re capable of beating everybody. If we play our best game we can win.”
And Bradley knows that the more Edinburgh supporters travel to Dublin for the semi-final, the better chance the team will have of playing at that optimal level. A crowd of 37,881 watched the win against Toulouse, producing the kind of raucous backing for the team that has often been conspicuously lacking at big Scottish games.
“Our supporters have seen now how important it is to get big numbers to a big match,” the coach continued. “It’s important that they come to Dublin in droves, because they can provide real encouragement to the players. You saw that on Saturday – the players fed off the energy of the crowd.”
That attendance was produced in part by the form that Edinburgh showed in reaching the quarter-final, and in part by a marketing drive that tried to tap in to a section of the sporting public who would not normally think of going to a rugby match.
“There’s a core audience there for rugby, but I think for this game we were able to reach out beyond that,” Edinburgh chief executive Craig Docherty said.
“We advertised extensively in radio and on newspapers as well as on television, and our sponsors, such as ESPC and the Hotel du Vin group, also helped immensely in promoting the match.
“One of the key things we wanted to achieve was to make people realise that not everything at Murrayfield is the Six Nations. We want Edinburgh to be seen more as a club, and not just as a division of Scottish Rugby.
“We’ve done that this season with things like the pitch-side standing area. And we built up an atmosphere before and during the game that was a lot different from the one people would associate with a Murrayfield international.
“We were aggressive in our target. Some people were sceptical, but I think the attendance shows we were fully vindicated. We were very resistant to giving away free tickets. We decided that we were not going to go down that route for a big game like a European quarter-final.
“So we held our nerve. We priced adult tickets at £15, children’s tickets at £5 and gave students an offer of £5 up to match day.
“I’m not saying we got absolutely every detail of the day right, but we do feel vindicated. We sacrificed a bit of income from ticket revenue to ensure we got a bigger crowd, and it was the big crowd that got us over the line at the end of the game.”
The Aviva Stadium could host an even bigger crowd for the semi-final, and its capacity of 51,700 may even be tested. Tickets are being sold by Ulster, and also through tournament organisers ERC Ltd, but Edinburgh are urging supporters to buy through them, as that way all the Scottish fans will be together in the grounds. The club had sold more than 1,000 tickets by early yesterday – and that was despite problems with the website that had been exacerbated by heavy traffic following Saturday’s win.
“Tickets will become sparse, so we would advise everyone to get theirs as soon as possible,” Docherty added. “The same goes for travel.
“Prices of flights from Edinburgh doubled within an hour of full-time on Saturday, and they will have gone up again once it was confirmed that Ulster would be our opponents. If airline prices are too high I’d advise supporters to look at other ways of getting to Dublin, such as flying to Belfast then taking the train south, which many of us have done on international weekends.”
Docherty is well aware that success on the field is a key factor in persuading new sponsors to come on board and existing ones to renew. And success on the field attracts higher crowds – which in turn, as was seen on Saturday, makes success on the field more likely. It is a virtuous circle that he hopes continues come the semi-final at the end of the month.
• Tickets for the Heineken Cup semi-final between Ulster and Edinburgh are available on line at www.eticketing.co.uk/scottishrugby, or via the 24-hour ticket hotline: 0844 335 3933.