Edinburgh scrum-half Nathan Fowles believes tight bonds off the field and players taking more responsibility for what happens on it will help drive the club to a more positive season this term.
The capital side slumped to a highly disappointing ninth-place finish in the Guinness Pro12 after topping the table earlier in the season and the pressure is on Alan Solomons and his squad to up their game.
They get their league campaign under way with a trip to Cardiff a fortnight tomorrow and, after what has been by all accounts a brutal pre-season, get their first hit out on the field this evening when they face Sale Sharks in a pre-season friendly at Heywood Park, kick-off 7pm.
The news that Gregor Townsend is to take on the Scotland job yesterday led to praise for the terrific culture he has instilled at Glasgow Warriors, but Fowles bristles at any suggestion that Edinburgh lag behind their inter-city rivals in that regard.
“From a personal point of view, coming to this club really opened my eyes,” said the 23-year-old Rochdale lad who is returning home to his first club tonight. “This is the tightest knit bunch of lads I’ve ever been involved with. As far as off the field goes, we meet on Tuesday night and go out for dinner in different groups. I was out last week with Sean Kennedy and his missus. It is so relaxed and family-oriented.
“At the end of the season we have the players and partners dinner when we sit down as a group and have a big meal together. It’s a nice occasion. We get dressed up and enjoy each other’s company and I think that’s important.
“We’re trying to organise a barbecue for everyone after the Newcastle friendly [at BT Murrayfield next Friday] – kids, everyone. The whole club comes together. Obviously, it is a really good culture we’ve got here. The lads on the social committee are doing a good job.”
Last year the Scotland international players were away preparing for the World Cup at this time but having them involved in the pre-season has added a new dimension this year, according to Fowles.
“Their leadership is unquestioned,” he said. “The likes of Al Dickinson, Ross Ford and Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist have had massive amount of experience. That’s invaluable in the preseason, not just on the field but off the field as well.
“Things have been a lot more player-led this season as well, which is good. The emphasis has been put on us to make sure we are actually reviewing sessions as a group away from the coaches so we have an input into what we want to do going forward.
“It’s mainly the players [driving it] to be honest. Senior players sat down and said ‘look, we want to take more ownership’. In the past I think the boys have felt it has been left up to the coaches, but we want to take it on as players.
“If we want to challenge for the top four, which we think we’re more than capable of, we need to be doing every little thing that we can as players. That’s really positive going forward and the boys have bought into it.”
Fowles came through the Sale academy and, while he is looking forward to a bit of a homecoming, his heart belongs to Edinburgh now after he joined in 2015, initially on loan.
He is Scottish qualified through a grandparent and is hoping for more game time this season after finding himself third choice for the No 9 jersey behind Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Sean Kennedy.
“I relish it and I think the other two lads do as well,” said Fowles. “We are a great mates off the pitch, doing things together all the time, but there is obviously that battle for the position. All you can do is do your best and make sure you’re training to the highest level possible.
“Alan has told us that we will be picked on form and at the end of last season he kept his word on that. As soon as I get my opportunity I will be looking to take it and build on that for the rest of the season.”
Solomons will take a 27-man squad to Greater Manchester and said: “After weeks of pre-season training the players are all looking forward to playing a game.
“Everyone will get game time and the hit out against stiff opposition will stand the team in good stead.”