IF THERE is one Scottish player you might want in your corner when the chips are down, Tom Smith must come close to the top of the list.
• Picture: TSPL
As a player the loosehead prop took up the challenge of scrummaging for the British and Irish Lions after only a few international matches with Scotland and duly went on to become one of Scotland's greatest-ever Lions with six consecutive Test starts. The first batch finished successfully, the second far from so. And so it was in his time with Glasgow Caledonians, Brive and Northampton, and, of course, Scotland: more ups and downs than a typical day's sledging.
This week he had been trying to work his forward pack on a gym floor at Fettes College and, eventually, at Heart of Midlothian's indoor pitch at Riccarton. Such is life in the ridiculously barren sports facility landscape that is Scotland. Sessions have had to be cut to ensure the big 18 and 19-stone forwards in particular do not suffer injury, but Smith remains confident that the team are ready for one of the few sporting contests in the UK to beat the week's freeze.
"You're not going to go through a rugby career without having disappointments, and I've had plenty and these Edinburgh boys will have their share too," he said. "It has been disappointing over the last few weeks, but while it's a clich there is truth in the saying that you learn a lot about yourself and the people around you in how you come out of hard times.
"We have gone back to basics a bit, and freshened the team up, and we've also looked closely at the games and what cost us. The main thing was that we didn't get much fast ball and the collisions were won by them (Glasgow] and consequently every breakdown was a battle for us.
"We have thought hard about that and have focused on getting ourselves up and out and playing again. You can't allow yourself to get too down about it and that's the nice thing about rugby – you have the chance to come back again very quickly. We're all aware that it hasn't been right in the last two weeks and as well as it being hard for us, players and coaches, it will have been very dispiriting for our supporters.
"So, while it's been hard finding somewhere to train, and trying to manage the training so that the guys don't suffer injuries on hard floors, we have got back to basics and put in some very hard work to rectify the areas we need to improve."
It was all so much brighter when there was greenery visible. Edinburgh launched their season with three wins on the trot, and then only lost narrowly, 21-19, at home to Leinster. But then a humbling 31-10 loss at the Ospreys and a similar beating from Stade Francais in the opening Heineken Cup match had the capital men reeling.
Just as they were starting to find their feet with wins over Ulster and Bath in Europe, Glasgow appeared with the double whammy of 1872 Cup defeats to dump the team on their backside.
The team has slid from second only to leaders Glasgow on points difference to fifth, and seven points off the pace, and with Heineken Cup business back on the agenda in the coming fortnight, they need to revive their league campaign this evening.
Good possession, regularly won, is the problem. The set-piece has been shaky, but fixable, yet Smith knows the breakdown area is the real contentious issue and has responded this week by picking an entire back row of openside flankers in Alan MacDonald, Ross Rennie and Roddy Grant. Questions are also being asked, however, of Smith's technical coaching of this area, where the team's troubles began this season in Swansea and Paris. Is a former loosehead prop, and young coach, the man to sort Edinburgh's problems in this area? Smith believes he can.
"Coaches draw on different experiences," he said, "but you undoubtedly broaden your horizons when you go into coaching and I've been involved in coaching for a few years now. But there are also things that hold true for all positions, like carrying the ball into contact, running hard, aggression and accuracy in clear-out, and it doesn't matter if you are a centre or a prop, if you are the first man in to the breakdown you have got to be effective, and technique has to be good, or else we lose the ball or get slow ball.
"Our boys know what they need to do and have proven how good they can be when they get it right, across the team, but Glasgow made us work harder at the breakdown than we made them work, they carried the ball better than us and the second man in was stronger and quicker than us.
"I looked particularly at the period before half-time (against Glasgow] where if we'd really carried or cleared-out well we'd have scored; we'd have had walk-ins. But we had to scramble and fight for a few more seconds, which allowed a few more defenders to come round and close the holes.
"It's an area where I've got to put my hand up and take responsibility. There are no quick fixes here and if you don't keep working on it, keep revisiting it, then you will get found out, and we perhaps paid the price for that last week."
Quick, clean ball will be of particular value to young stand-off Rory Hutton who makes his Magners League debut for Edinburgh today and will be glad of all the time his forwards can give him.
"We have work to do now to improve our performance," admitted Smith, "And if we achieve that we will be back in a good position on Saturday night."