TOULOUSE are the Manchester United of French rugby, and their coach, Guy Noves, has been in charge there almost as long as Alex Ferguson has been at Old Trafford.
Today’s match is his 125th European tie, and, like Sir Alex, he has guided his team to domestic and European titles.
It would be wrong to suggest that Edinburgh v Toulouse is the equivalent of Hearts v Man U – the gap between the two isn’t that large. Nevertheless, in terms of record and resources it is very wide indeed. Toulouse’s budget is almost eight times larger than Edinburgh’s. Today, Toulouse sit at the top of the French league; Edinburgh are second from the bottom of the Rabo 12.
Plain sailing then for the visitors? Not in the opinion of the sagacious M. Noves. He is wary. For one thing Toulouse were defeated in the only two Heineken quarter-finals they have played away from home, losing to Ulster and Cardiff. For another, in this year’s pool, they lost two away games, to Harlequins and Gloucester. Then there have been close Heineken games in Edinburgh before. Toulouse lost 16-23 in 2003, won 29-25 in 1997 and 20-13 in 2005. Guy Noves has considerable respect for Edinburgh; “against them,” he says, “you have to lift your head and be ready to re-arrange your defence.”
History or precedent means little. Perhaps that will be true of the respective league positions also. Edinburgh’s season has been weird, but only at first sight. The truth is that there is a huge disparity between Edinburgh at full strength and Edinburgh with ten or so players unavailable because they are in the Scotland squad.
If Toulouse, without their members of the French squad, played Edinburgh without their Scotland players, the match would be embarrassingly one-sided. With both teams as near full strength as injuries will allow, it may be a different story.
Furthermore Edinburgh’s internationalists have a good deal to prove. Scotland’s season had its moments, especially against France and, to a lesser extent, Wales, but it fizzled out ignominiously in Dublin and in Rome. This is an opportunity to redeem themselves. Of no one is this more true than Nick De Luca. His position in the Scotland team is under threat, partly because of his own mistakes, partly because there are younger centres now snapping at his heels. A good match today may salvage his international career. The last time Toulouse came to Edinburgh, he scored a lovely try, wrong-footing the great Yannick Jauzion. A repeat performance would be welcome.
Edinburgh at full strength are capable of scoring tries against anyone with their powerful and creative back-row and flying wingers, Lee Jones and Tim Visser. At half-back Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw are at least the equals of their opposite numbers. With their international front row returned there is a good chance that Edinburgh will hold their own in the scrum, though of course that has now become such a lottery and so dependent on the referee’s interpretation that any prediction in this area of the game is futile.
There are more worries about Edinburgh’s defence. Too often they leak tries, some of them soft. Toulouse are likely to score tries against anyone, but at least they must be made to work for them. Moreover, Edinburgh, like Scotland, have the habit of conceding a score immediately after scoring themselves. Why Scottish teams are so bad at dealing with restarts is a mystery.
Despite their running ability Toulouse are likely to kick a lot, especially with Lionel Beauxis starting at number 10. Edinburgh may hope he will, for he is a flakey player apt to crumble under pressure. But he does have a monstrous boot, and any kicking duel will probably end with territorial advantage to Toulouse. Edinburgh might be wiser to look to run the ball back rather than engaging in a round of aerial ping-pong.
This is perhaps the most important rugby match played in Scotland for years.
It is the first Heineken quarter-final to have been played here, and the size of the crowd is evidence of the enthusiasm generated. One has always held that professional rugby will be well established here only when our teams are winning and drawing good crowds. Victory for Edinburgh would give a huge boost to the Scottish game and would wipe out some of the bad memories left by this year’s 6 Nations.
Finally, and in the same context, Glasgow’s 31-3 victory over Cardiff last week was the most convincing performance yet from any Scottish pro team. It was both efficient and imaginative, and the achievement was all the more notable because the outstanding players in that game – Alex Dunbar, Chris Fusaro, Ryan Wilson and Rob Harley – are still uncapped. On this evidence all four are knocking hard on Andy Robinson’s door.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 11 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West