In the lead-up to Friday’s European Challenge Cup final at Twickenham Stoop, several of the Edinburgh players had spoken about their burning desire not to be the Scottish team who made history by reaching a European final only to fall short on the night.
Well, fall short they did, unfortunately, losing 19-13 to Gloucester and now they must lift themselves for the battle to claim a top-six finish which would guarantee a place in the elite Champions Cup next season.
They have two league games remaining – away to Newport Gwent Dragons this Friday and then home to deposed champions Leinster, who have nothing left to play for, on the final Saturday of the regular season. At present, Edinburgh sit in seventh position a point behind Scarlets, whose final fixtures are Cardiff at home and Treviso away. The other contenders, Connacht, are four points behind Edinburgh with Zebre away and Ospreys at home their remaining games. On paper, you would have to say the Welsh side would be favourites, which, assuming they hold on to seventh spot, would leave Alan Solomons’ men facing their Stoop conquerors Gloucester once again in the Champions Cup play-offs system – the winners of that going on to tackle the eighth-placed side in the French Top 14.
After Friday’s final defeat, Edinburgh skipper Mike Coman described the prospect of a swift Gloucester rematch as an opportunity for revenge but he added: “Our first goal is to finish sixth.”
Despite the imperative to refocus on league business, it would be unnatural if the events of Friday did not continue to niggle away at the minds of those involved. But you would hope that when the dust has settled on a campaign with plenty of life left in it, they will reflect with some pride on their Challenge Cup effort.
Yes, they were outclassed in the final for long periods and could have been dead by half-time. But they were brave, hung in there and, following the red carding of Gloucester’s Billy Meakes, got themselves to within a converted score of glory. The bad habit of making mistakes at crucial times resurfaced, though, and a penalty was conceded while pressing in the Gloucester 22 with seven minutes left.
After all the hype about his battle with young pretender Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw – who made his point with a controlled display and near faultless goalkicking – engineered a masterful period of keep-ball to kill the game.
Solomons was quick to admit it had not been a great performance by his troops but praised the resilience shown. It was not the greatest of games, with cup-final nerves affecting both sides, but it was compelling and great to see a Scottish side involved in this type of occasion. The Edinburgh fans played a vocal part in a raucous atmosphere and will surely now have a taste for more. If Glasgow can make it through to the Pro12 final at the end of the month too then Scottish rugby’s Wooden Spoon hangover will have been partially dog-haired.
Yes, the Challenge Cup is a second-tier tournament, but it has helped to energise an Edinburgh team that was not in a good place last year. The away win at Bordeaux, who were second in the French league at the time, provided the spark and, even though the pool contained the basement dwellers of both the English Premiership and French Top 14, five wins out of six boosted confidence. That carried into the 1872 Cup when Glasgow’s six-year stranglehold was loosened and propelled on to some impressive wins in the Pro12 – notably the ending of Scarlets’ long unbeaten home run.
Then came the knock-out rounds in Europe – a dramatic win at London Irish and a rousing thumping of the Dragons in front of more than 8,000 at BT Murrayfield. All this provides a platform heading into next season.
Tim Visser is leaving but young Test talents like Hidalgo-Clyne, Greig Tonks, Ben Toolis, Dougie Fife and Hamish Watson will, you would hope, continue to improve. Hopefully, centre Matt Scott can shake off his latest shoulder injury quickly and fit-again South African import Cornell du Preez is back to his brilliant barnstorming best for the run-in and into next term.
Solomons’ two-year deal is up at the end of the season, but he has spoken of his desire to stay and it is expected this will be clarified soon. Some rebuilding will be required, off the pitch as well as on. Edinburgh’s back-room staff is currently dwarfed by Glasgow’s, with Solomons’ assistant, Stevie Scott, also covering the roles of forwards and defence coach.
When looking back at his two years up until now the South African has, with some justification, pointed out that in his first season he arrived late and inherited a poorly conditioned squad in a state of some disarray. This season, there has been a steadying of the ship, tangible progress and some excellent results. Next season will be when things are expected to come together, which means operating in the upper reaches of the Pro12 and being competitive in Europe – whichever of the two competitions they end up in.
A final thought. Twickenham Stoop proved to be an excellent venue for Friday’s final – an impressive set-up and the perfect size for the occasion. You couldn’t help but wistfully imagine that there was such a thing as the “BT Murrayfield Stoop”. For it is an inescapable truth that whenever you contemplate the longer-term future of Edinburgh, the elephant in the room is that it is difficult to see how the club can truly thrive – as Glasgow have at Scotstoun – while rattling around the cavernous national stadium.