ALONG with the exact nature of dark matter and the enduring success of Johnny Hallyday across the Channel, one of life’s more perplexing mysteries has to be Edinburgh’s Jekyll and Hyde character. They play like lions in Europe but give their coach, pictured right, kittens come the domestic season.
Edinburgh should be granted leeway after securing Scottish rugby’s equivalent of Nirvana, a home tie in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals but, with just five wins in the RaboDirect Pro 12, coach Michael Bradley’s men are surely stretching their fans’ forgiving nature to breaking point.
Admittedly the club enjoyed a little luck when drawn in the easiest Heineken pool and Edinburgh have been competing without their nine-strong complement of Scotland squad players throughout much of the Six Nations – but that still doesn’t explain the Grand Canyon gulf between cup and league performances.
The second-string front row are not a patch on the Test trio of Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford and Geoff Cross, which is why the club has signed John Yapp and WP Nel but, for all their absentees, Edinburgh’s pack still boasts a very handy back five. Netani Talei is a first-choice, first-class No.8, Roddy Grant is occasionally picked ahead of Ross Rennie at openside, Sean Cox is just the abrasive character Edinburgh need and Grant Gilchrist is one to watch in the second row.
In short, Edinburgh have more than enough strength in depth to have avoided those seven consecutive league losses, which was only prevented from becoming eight by Friday’s narrow victory over the Scarlets.
“We have performed well enough in the Pro 12 in terms of creating chances,” claims Bradley, “but we have been very poor in terms of finishing them off, and that has been very frustrating for everybody.”
This excuse is now officially dubbed the “Scotland gambit” after several years of their coaches claiming that all the national team lacked was a little finishing finesse, that last pass being the final piece of the jigsaw standing between Scotland and Grand Slam glory. It’s not true of Scotland and it’s not true of Edinburgh. Or, at best, it’s only a part of the picture.
From the outside it looks very much like this Edinburgh side have had their heads turned by European glory, too posh for a push in the league. Since qualifying for Saturday’s quarter-final against Toulouse, the club has won just one league match (Friday’s), their first victory in the Pro 12 since 2 December. Three of their five league victories arrived before their Heineken campaign even kicked off. There is no relegation to avoid and Edinburgh aren’t threatening the play-off places so the club have nothing to play for except pride which, looking at the other quarter finalists, begs an obvious question.
Ahead of this weekend’s results, Toulouse and Clermont sat first and second in France’s Top 14, Saracens were second in England’s Aviva Premiership, and Leinster and Munster filled the top two slots in the RaboDirect, with Ulster fifth. Only the Blues are less than stellar, sitting seventh in the Pro 12. But even they have won half of their 18 league outings.
A good team is a good team all the time, not just when the mood takes them, and it simply isn’t conceivable to imagine the likes of Leinster, Saracens or Toulouse, the big dogs of Europe, welching on their day jobs quite as completely as Edinburgh have done, even allowing for the fact those clubs boast far greater depth in their squads.
Of course, Edinburgh will raise their game on Saturday and put in a battling performance simply because they reserve their best for the Heineken Cup. But they will find it mighty difficult to gear up from regular league losses to beating the best team in Europe – especially as Toulouse are not noted for giving a sucker an even break.
There were two television journalists from French channel Canal Plus over in Scotland last week, getting some footage in the can ahead of the big one and, when asked about it, one of them had this to say: “I think that French flair is a ghost, it does not exist.” Bradley evidently agrees. When quizzed as to whether Toulouse would play rugby or stick the ball up their jumpers and bully the lightweight Edinburgh eight there was little doubt in the coach’s mind.
“There is a fair chance they’ll do the latter,” said the Irishman. “They’re quite calculating in how they approach matches, particularly away from home. They’ve been caught on a couple of occasions when they’ve gone a bit loose, so I think they’ll challenge us up front first and, if they get a return there, I don’t think they’ll move from that. It’s up to us to stand up to that challenge. It is going to be very difficult.”
In the pool stages Racing Metro’s giant pack attempted a rolling maul from one lineout but, when Edinburgh stopped it at source, they gave up on the tactic. Instead they played open, running rugby which is what Edinburgh wanted because, to borrow from boxing, they always have a puncher’s chance.
Teams have consistently underestimated Edinburgh in this contest but Toulouse’s veteran coach Guy Novès has been around long enough not to make that mistake. Back in 2005 he won a cup final at Murrayfield and will turn up on Saturday expecting to win this quarter-final too.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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