Alan Solomons on how schooling shaped his outlook

SCOTTISH rugby has endured enough false dawns to make pessimism a national art form, but there is a fresh and unnerving sense of revolution spreading into the capital ahead of the new season.

Alan Solomons is relishing the chance to put Edinburgh on the map as a rugby force, having been installed as the pro sides new coach. Picture: Jane Barlow

Alan Solomons is a slight figure. At 63, he is also a veteran of sports coaching, a man who helped South Africa set a world record of consecutive Test victories 15 years ago. In his new Murrayfield office, he smiles politely and takes your hand on meeting – and since I first met him when the Springboks visited these shores, and duly thumped Scotland by a record 68-10 margin, in 1997 he has exuded a warmth of spirit and an intelligence that invites respect.

But that is not the man that Edinburgh players are likely to see in the coming weeks. Solomons was brought to Scotland two weeks ago as the latest part of a campaign to turn Scottish rugby from competitive also-rans to genuine title contenders, across the UK and Ireland, across Europe and among the top eight nations in world rugby once again.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In simple terms, the South African was hired on a two-year contract to toughen up Edinburgh, shake off a reputation for style without substance and create new foundations to mould a viability in pro rugby in the east never achieved since the districts first launched into pro rugby 17 years ago.

So who is he and how does he plan such significant change? Finding a half-hour gap in a diary full of more business than a Middle East diplomacy charter this week was challenging, but we succeeded and I started by delving into Solomons’ past in an effort to examine where the reputation for being a strong disciplinarian who takes no prisoners – a quiet man with a hard edge – was forged, and what it was that persuaded SRU Chief Executive Mark Dodson and Scott Johnson, the director of rugby, to wait until August for him, running the risk of sending Edinburgh into the new season unprepared.

Solomons takes us back to the late 1960s and College House, a halls of residence for the University of Cape Town. Not just a halls, but the oldest in Africa, and one where newcomers experienced a unique initiation.

“That was where I was really shaped, where the toughness came from,” he says. “My parents inculcated in me strong principles of honesty and integrity, and my dad was strict with me about achievement.

“He liked to show me that there was no such thing as a free meal and once I remember I was only allowed a tennis racket when I won the schools tournament; finishing second wasn’t good enough.

“My local school, Grey High Scool, was excellent and I had excellent teachers, and that moulded me too, but that time at College House was a critical period in shaping me as a person, because I was immature when I started, and what I learned there about myself, people and team-work has been a big factor in what I have gone on to achieve in rugby, and what I bring even now to Edinburgh.” I am intrigued. What did go on in that historic institution, during unexpected, dark moments, away from the eyes of the lecturers?

“It was not like the wild stories of boarding schools you might hear,” he insists. “But the school was run along traditional lines, where you had to dress for dinner etc, and at College House we had a strong initiation system that lasted your first year. It was hard, but at the same time done in a thoughtful way, with a purpose.

“There were physical aspects to it. I remember you had to toboggan down the huge stairs, flying down and crashing to the bottom, which was quite frightening.

“And everyone boxed in the residence so you had to do that. I had never boxed before that and I wasn’t a big guy, but they weighed you and your opponent was more or less the same weight as 
you. It was three two-minute rounds or something, and they did it in the dining hall.

“All year you had to wear a red tie, a huge badge which you had to make yourself that had everything about your background on it, and red braces, and you had to call everyone ‘sir’. There was nothing really bad; it wasn’t madly physical. It was thought out to induct you into the way of being a College House man, but based on good core values of integrity, loyalty, honesty.

“It bred in me a certain toughness and resilience, the importance of a tight community where people trust each other. Some boys didn’t like it and left after the first few weeks, but it suited me. Those values were good and it played a critical role at that time in my life.”

The initiations were dropped shortly after he left, being frowned on by a new principal, and Solomons lets slip that his wife Mary still does not like him holding it up as important in his life. But it may be all the more interesting for that that he does.

Solomons was a bright kid, gaining business science, art and law degrees in a seven-year spell. By the finish he had become a leading figure in university rugby, which in South Africa counts several thousand students per establishment and a quality of rugby that would make many British clubs wince, so when advised by a doctor to stop playing at just 26, after a second serious knee operation, he quickly turned his attentions to coaching, and using his experiences to mould and shape.

Solomons did not come from a wealthy background, but what he terms a good middle-class family in the Eastern Cape. Born in Uitenhage, the young Solomons grew up in Port Elizabeth, living on the beach front in Summerstrand. It is a rare part of South Africa where all the communities, white, black and coloured, share a love of rugby, unlike black communities elsewhere that worship football. Three-quarters of the population are black or coloured, less than 20 per cent white, most now speak Afrikaans. It was also a stronghold of the ANC, while UCT also gained a reputation for liberalism and protesting against apartheid.

“I remember the Soweto riots of course, the same year I graduated in 1975, and it spilling over in Cape Town when the All Blacks were there in 1976 and I was stuck in the court, but as a youngster growing up in PE it was mostly English and all I remember really is everyone loving rugby and cricket, this great outdoors lifestyle and there being lots of space around you to play.

“My dad Bertie loved all sport, but he was particularly fond of horse-racing and was steward of the jockey club and owned horses at one stage. One of my earliest memories is of going to watch a rugby match with him aged just three or four and as I got older I’d come home from school games and we’d sit and discuss how our team played.”

His father was a solicitor but took on the family furniture business, while three uncles were doctors – Donald, fittingly, completing his FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) in Edinburgh before becoming a plastic surgeon in the US.

“From early days I had a deep love and passion for the game, and that was why when I came to a point in my life when I had to choose between the law and rugby I chose rugby.”

Intriguingly, that point came after he had become one of the world’s most successful coaches, assisting his former varsity player Nick Mallett to a record run of 17 straight Test wins with the Springboks, the Tri Nations title and a collection of record wins over top ten nations that no-one has matched before or since.

In tandem with the Boks work, he was also leading Western Province to Currie Cup glory and the Stormers to South Africa’s first home semi-final in Super Rugby, and still he was on a sabbatical from his law career.

“It was four years, 1997-2001, and then I had to make a choice over whether I went back to the good job I had or took the plunge into rugby for good. Ulster were interested and I decided the challenge in Belfast looked interesting.

“I really enjoyed my law, I loved it. But I used to say that the law was my living but rugby was my life. And I loved my time in Ulster, loved Northern Ireland, met some fantastic people there and the team did well.

“We had three good years building up from just missing out on qualifying for the Heineken Cup knockout stages, to qualifying and winning the Celtic Cup, here at Murrayfield.”

John Steele then came calling, offering Solomons the challenge of steering Northampton to the top of English rugby, and he took it on, but was gone after just four strange months.

“After three years I felt it might be time for a different voice to take over at Ulster, and John, the then chief executive at Northampton, wanted someone to help him make substantive changes.

“It looked like a big challenge and it intrigued me, but the truth is that I didn’t do proper due diligence before I went there.

“I didn’t know where the power in the club lay. I thought it was with John, who is a good guy and a strong personality. I thought he was the boss, and I discovered that he wasn’t, that other people had power in the club and they had different ideas about what they wanted.

“We brought in some South African players – John wanted their strong leadership but others didn’t.

“I learned a lesson – do your homework before you go into a job. The environment has got to suit you and your strengths, and ultimately you look back at the history of that club and they have made substantive changes, a lot of people have been moved on, and Jim [Mallinder] is doing a great job now.”

Solomons took on a director of rugby role with the USA, and became the IRB’s High Performance Consultant, helping various nations, from 2007-2010, before being asked to coach a team back in his native Eastern Cape against the British and Irish Lions in 2009.

“I had always wanted to go back to PE at some point in my life, for my dad as much as anything, and so when I was asked to take the team against the Lions, and then stay on and prepare them for Super Rugby it meant a lot to me, my mum Ruth, who is still around, and other family and friends.

“When I was coach of The Stormers we did not win Super Rugby but secured the 1st SA home semi final. Had Bob Skinstad not been injured I think we would have one the tournament.

“That was why, when the SRU asked me to come here, as much as I wanted this challenge, I was not prepared to leave the Southern Kings until the end of my contract. We had a tough time in Super Rugby ultimately, but we had two players with experience of Super Rugby, only three who had played in the Currie Cup, we drew with the Brumbies in Australia, had some good wins and though we lost to the Golden Lions over two games we won the last one in Ellis Park, which, for me, was a final show of the great character the team had.”

Port Elizabeth and Edinburgh are a world apart in so many ways, but Solomons sees similarities between that job in his home city and the role he has taken on in Scotland.

“At the end of the day, it comes back to what we started talking about, the principles that are important to you. For me, at the top is integrity and respect.

“What I understand is that Edinburgh, to an extent, has lost its way. It has gone off the beaten track and we have to get them back on track. That was told to me quite honestly, and I spoke to various contacts around the UK and Europe, and they basically backed up what I’d been told.

“So, I felt there was a great challenge here, in a great city in a great country. It’s new and will be very different to what I’ve done before, but it starts the same way with the foundations.

“I’ve only been here two weeks but we’re starting to put in place foundations on and off the field. I have told the guys we are going to earn the respect of opponents, our supporters and the rugby public in general. The way we do that is by the way we play out there on the field and the way we play will be determined by how quickly and effectively we get our foundations in place.”

He and wife Mary have moved into a new home in East Calder outside Edinburgh – “I don’t like cities, I like space” – and he is looking forward to visits from his three daughters and grandchildren, his “pride and joy”, now scattered across Australia, the USA and South Africa.

And then laughter erupts. We had started to discuss Edinburgh’s missionary work in the Borders with last night’s game against Newcastle, and he recalled his first memory of coaching a side in the region 20 years ago.

“It was at Melrose Sevens, a province development side and, look,” he says, hesitating, then laughing, “I didn’t have a clue about sevens – nobody did at that time in South Africa.

“We got hammered at Melrose. I think we took a kick for the posts from about 50 metres which met with a lot of derision! I didn’t have a clue, but we had another tournament in Glasgow the next week and the coach with Bay of Plenty, Matt te Pou, taught me the basics of sevens on the bus from the Borders through to Glasgow. It must have worked because we beat his team in the final in Glasgow!”

Solomons is an engaging character and while, despite the earlier reflections, he insists he is not one for looking back, one does wonder what might have happened with Scotland had he been preferred to Matt Williams when the pair made the shortlist for the national post in 2003.

“I have a chance now to do my bit for the Scottish game and I’m very excited by it,” he concludes.

“I won’t sit and talk about styles of play, winning this and that. We’ll need time. But I know how to build teams and I know what success in rugby is built upon, and it starts with making people respect us.

“That’s it. And they will only respect us with the way we play, and we have to back up that performance week in week out.

“The Borders is a good place to start at home because you have to earn respect there. Hopefully, by the time this article appears we will have done that with our performance against Newcastle, because we need the Borders involved in professional rugby in Scotland and we need them backing us.

“But we have no right ask the people of Edinburgh, the Borders and north for that yet. We as a club have to stand up to the challenge first, and earn their respect.”

As he stands up, offers his hand and apologises unnecessarily for having to leave for a coaches’ meeting, one glances at his hand and pictures the slight teenager making a good fist of his first boxing match, emerging bloodied but believing that he just might be able to take on the world.

Fifty years on and much further north, it remains a decent experience for someone charged with establishing a successful professional rugby culture in the capital of this football-dominated country.