Allan Massie: Edinburgh’s Heineken challenge

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ENGAGING in a Heineken pool with Munster, Gloucester and Perpignan is a tough undertaking at any time. For a team that has won only one league match this season it’s even more formidable.

But this is what Edinburgh are now faced with. Perhaps they will show that league form is irrelevant when it comes to the cup, as they did when they reached the Heineken semi-final two seasons ago. Perhaps.

Our chief rugby writer David Ferguson saw signs of improvement against Cardiff Blues last week. This was generous of him. Admittedly they were marginally better than when they lost 10-44 to the Ospreys, but then Cardiff are not as good as the Ospreys. In truth last week, Cardiff were mediocre and Edinburgh worse than that. They did have a good, or goodish, spell in the middle of the match, and for the first hour their defence was sound enough. But they played in a dismal style utterly lacking in ambition or imagination. One pass, run into a tackler, do the same again; alternatively boot the ball in the air and hope for the best. Apart from one or two kicks by Harry Leonard, their kicking game was very poor, Cardiff regularly coming out on top in the dreary passages of aerial ping-pong, and their chasing game was no better. They played like a team entirely lacking in self-belief, and it was wretched to see such a talented young player as David Denton reduced to being only a battering ram.

Their new coach, Alan Solomons, has made all the wrong noises since he arrived from South Africa. The message seems to be that things are even worse than he was led to expect. He sounds depressingly like the unlamented Matt Williams who, when appointed Scotland coach immediately after the World Cup in 2003, made it clear his players were not nearly good enough – though they had come within a whisker of beating South Africa away from home five months previously – and then sought to buy himself time by telling us it would be a couple of years before we could look for improvement.

Meanwhile, not a week has passed without news of another foreign signing at Edinburgh. There have been 11 since the summer, none of them the sort of established international player capable of lifting a side. Some of the incomers are young, and may develop well. Others seem to be no more than journeymen. They may prove themselves to be more than this, but at present there is no reason to think any of them better than players already at Edinburgh.

Edinburgh were very poor last season, inexplicably so, though they did pick up in their last few games when Duncan Hodge and Steve Scott took over as coaches after the departure of Michael Bradley and Neil Back. Yet the fact is that Edinburgh still have 11 or 12 of the players who beat Toulouse in the quarter-final of the Heineken in April 2012, and lost to Ulster in the semi-final. Allan Jacobsen, Natani Talei and Mike Blair have gone, as has Chris Paterson, who didn’t play in the semi-final, but the others haven’t all become bad players since. Some have suffered injuries, missing much of last season – Ross Rennie, Nick De Luca and Lee Jones, for instance – while Rennie and Tom Brown are currently injured. But enough remain to have one asking what has gone wrong.

An obvious answer is that they have abandoned the fast, adventurous off-loading game that brought them some success, and are now playing, or being condemned to play, a much more limited game which not only doesn’t suit them, but is arguably also out of date. Anyone who had the pleasure of watching the magnificent match between South Africa and New Zealand last week will surely have concluded that the one pass and charge, or boot the ball in the air, style of rugby has had its day. (Even Morne Steyn, the Springbok fly-half, has abandoned it.) Two years ago, Edinburgh at least aspired to play the high-intensity running-and-passing game. They suffered some heavy defeats, principally because of inadequate reserve strength, but they also achieved some notable victories. Since then they’ve regressed. Playing as they did in Cardiff they seem to be condemned to regress further and suffer more heavy defeats.

Glasgow couldn’t have a tougher first Heineken match, away to the holders, Toulon, otherwise known as the International All-Stars. Nevertheless, they have been playing so well, even if tries have not yet been flowing, that they may surprise Toulon, if, that is, they can contrive not to give away penalties, especially in their own half. This means coming to terms very quickly with the demands of the day’s referee with regard to the scrum and the breakdown. Moreover, the other two clubs in their pool – Exeter and Cardiff Blues – are both beatable, home and away. Should they manage to do that, their last pool game will be the return against Toulon in January – perhaps on a wet and windy day that might not be to the visitors’ taste. Glasgow haven’t yet done themselves justice in the Heineken. This is the year to put that right. They have the ability to do so – if they are sufficiently disciplined.