Heineken Cup: Edinburgh’s underdogs must get teeth into Toulouse
Backing of fans can spur Scottish side on but scrum will prove key battleground
MURRAYFIELD will today play host to the biggest game of professional rugby in Scotland since the game was declared “open” in 1995 with a fervent hope that it would produce a long-lasting benefit to Scottish sport.
Following Edinburgh into today’s Heineken Cup quarter-final is a palpable excitement and it could not be better timed, the astonishing sale of 35,600 tickets providing belief that pro rugby could have a future in this small country just when Scotland have slid to a record low of 12th in the world rankings.
With buses and cars heading for Murrayfield from the north and east, all down the west coast and various parts of the Borders, to add their support to the hardy few thousand of Edinburgh regulars, fresh hope is springing across the country from this match.
Toulouse have been in the Scottish capital many times, winning and losing, and even being arrested, in the case of their passionate head coach Guy Noves who insisted on climbing over stewards and into the Murrayfield stands to celebrate his side’s Heineken Cup win over Stade Francais in 2005. But they remain rugby’s “kings of Europe”.
The Frenchmen come as favourites to proceed to the semi-finals, on account of having won ten out of 11 meetings with their Scottish hosts, been successful in nine out of 12 quarter-final appearances and won four from six Heineken Cup Finals. No-one else comes close.
Yet, they are fallible, and so the Scottish underdog has plenty to get his teeth into. Noves’ European stars have only played away from home in three quarter-finals, and twice they lost, to Ulster in 1998-99 and Cardiff ten years later, and the one they emerged triumphant in was close to home, in Dax. As my colleague Allan Massie points out on these pages they have very rarely won convincingly in Scotland, either in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and of course lost to Sean Lineen’s Warriors in 2009 when Glasgow flew at them from the first whistle in Toulouse.
This season the ‘kings’ fell to earth at home to Harlequins and at Gloucester in the pool stages – neither English side qualified – and only scraped into the last eight when Connacht struck a historic first Heineken win, 9-8 over ‘Quins.
The knockout stages are different; a stage where the best rise with the intensity and pressure. But this is new to Toulouse – a quarter-final inside Murrayfield with more than 35,000 Scots and virtually no French support. Many of them left the same stadium only a matter of weeks ago feeling fortunate to have escaped with victory in the Six Nations, and all of that will play on minds when the sides stride out today. How much the home crowd and players manage to add doubt in the first half-hour could be the most determining factor in the outcome of the game.
The scrum is the big battle-ground because Toulouse believe themselves to be the strongest in the tournament, and view Edinburgh’s as one of the weakest. Scotland hooker Ross Ford is aware of that, but this week pointed to how the front row of Allan Jacobsen, Ford and Geoff Cross had shoved top international packs backwards in recent years, and won battles with London Irish, Cardiff and Racing Metro at Murrayfield this season.
“They have a very experienced front row,” the hooker said, “but we’re pretty experienced now too. I know we’ll front up from the start, but we’ve talked the need to be clever; not showing them the same picture at every scrum, but changing what we do and how we do it.
“When we went to Racing we didn’t have a great set-piece but we kept working hard at it, played sensible rugby and got the result. Toulouse have a massive pack, so it’s about being smart about where we play, what we do when we have the ball, making them work hard and turning their strengths against them by not allowing them to dominate, and not get comfortable.
“They are a good team and have a lot of pedigree in this competition, but we have home advantage and we have shown that we can play rugby that can trouble any team so it’s about continuing what we’ve done in this competition so far.”
If Welsh referee Nigel Owens turns up with his mind already set that Toulouse will dominate the scrums, Edinburgh will be up against it but if he referees each one fairly, the hosts are confident they will surprise the visitors.
Toulouse have picked Jean Bouilhou at flanker instead of Yannick Nyanga, which hints at concern at David Denton’s lineout prowess. Ford will need to show improvement at the touchline on his last big match outing, in Rome, while this is a great opportunity for first-year pro Grant Gilchrist to take his development up another notch against two world-class performers in Yoann Maestri and Patricio Albacete.
Then we come to the breakdown where the Toulouse back row, led superbly by Thierry Dusautoir, are quick, incredibly strong and accurate, but Ross Rennie and Denton in harness with John Barclay showed how to keep Dusautoir quiet in the recent Test match with France – intense hard work.
Big Fijian No 8 Netani Talei has been at his best in the Heineken Cup and if he brings that work rate and enthusiasm in defence and attack, the Edinburgh trio have the ability to outshine and out-run the Toulouse three and lay the platform for victory.
Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw then have a chance to shape the game, and both have shown this year they have the ability to ask serious questions of any defence. They will hope to be on the front foot making decisions, but that will not always be the case, so their ability to kick high or to space, rather than into the inviting arms of Toulouse’s lethal counter-attacking back three, Yannick Jauzion, Yves Donguy and Matanavou Timoci, outside two wrecking ball centres in Yann David and Florian Fritz, will be vital.
Edinburgh cannot afford to give away easy possession as it plays to Toulouse’s innovative spirit, but, when deprived of ball Toulouse are a pale shadow of themselves, and can become frustrated and error-prone, none more so than fly-half Lionel Beauxis.
Much has been spoken of Edinburgh’s poor league form, but forget that. The World Cup and Six Nations deprived them of the spine of their team, and merely underlined the need to strengthen if they are to challenge more consistently. For the same reason ignore the fact that Toulouse have lost two of their last three matches in the Top 14.
They are missing players to injury, but such is their strength in depth that too is irrelevant, but the fact that Edinburgh have named a full-strength side is crucial to home hopes.
Tom Brown, at full-back, is the only player new to this level as other youngsters Matt Scott, Gilchrist and Denton have shone in the cup this season, and while the 22-year-old will expect high bombs from Beauxis, Toulouse should be wary of his ability to catch and counter-attack at pace.
There is enough in the Edinburgh back line to worry Toulouse if they can build momentum in their attack, with the flying machine Tim Visser eagerly looking for opportunities to add to his try haul.
And that, momentum, is the key – if Edinburgh can play the game at their pace, controlled but with many phases, slick passing and good off-loading, this will be a cracking match the home side can win. If the pack struggle and Toulouse dictate the pace, knock over penalties and force Edinburgh to chase the game, it will be incredibly tough to overcome the favourites.
From the excited fanfare around Murrayfield to the game itself this will be a historic occasion. But for Edinburgh to win, it will come back to simple principles – tackle with aggression, again and again; run with conviction, again and again; be accurate and courageous.
Great victories do not come easy, but that could be enough to bring the professional game in Scotland a long-awaited boost and lay the foundation stone for a return to the top table of world rugby.
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
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Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
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