I RATHER think that some of us – and I include myself – owe Alan Solomons an apology.
We were fairly critical, some severely critical, of, first, the Edinburgh coach’s recruitment policy, as he seemed to be filling his squad with southern hemisphere players with no great record of achievement; and then equally critical of the very limited and unambitious style in which his team were playing.
His assurance that he was working on the same long-term plan as he had when coach of Ulster was met with a degree of scepticism, and certainly, for his first season in charge and the early weeks of his second one, neither results nor performance suggested he was proceeding on the right lines.
But now I think we must eat our words and say “sorry, we got it wrong, you seem to be getting it right”. Last weekend, Edinburgh went down to Wales and ended the Llanelli Scarlets’ 15-month unbeaten home record, a victory that leaves them with a chance of finishing in the top six of the league. Tomorrow they play London Irish in the quarter-final of the European Challenge Cup with the prospect of a home semi-final if they win. Admittedly, this is the subsidiary European competition, but – something for which I don’t feel the need to apologise – I suggested months ago that Edinburgh might benefit from being in the Challenge Cup rather than being up against the bigger beasts of the Champions one.
Moreover, as Edinburgh’s results and performance have both improved, Solomons has been able to give more opportunities to young or comparatively inexperienced Scots like Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Hamish Watson and Rory Sutherland, while at least one of his Scotland-qualified imports, Ben Toolis, has made huge strides and a very good impression. Eleven of the XV starting against London Irish are Scots, while a 12th, the South African prop WP Nel, will be qualified for Scotland this summer.
So the future for Edinburgh at last looks more promising and Alan Solomons has evidently got much more right than wrong. All that is needed now is for the SRU to do what should have been done years ago, and somehow or other find a more suitable club-sized ground for Edinburgh than Murrayfield can ever be, at least for their ordinary league matches.
The evidence of Glasgow’s improvement since they settled in to Scotstoun merely reinforces the case for providing Edinburgh with a ground where a crowd of five or six thousand can generate a lively atmosphere – something impossible in the cavernous wastes of Murrayfield.
This is the time of year when contracts expire and players move clubs. It’s a bit worrying that talented attackers and proven try-scorers like Niko Matawalu, DTH van der Merwe, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser are all heading out of Scotland. Admittedly the first two are not eligible for the national team, but they have contributed hugely to Glasgow’s success, and will be at least as hard to replace as Tim Visser will be for Edinburgh. The South African Canadian van der Merwe, in particular, has seemed to get better and better every year, and this season has been outstanding, unquestionably the best wing three-quarter playing in Scotland, arguably on his form the best finisher in the Guinness Pro 12.
As against this, Mike Blair is returning to Scotland, partly as a replacement for Matawalu, partly to act as a mentor of Glasgow’s younger scrum-halves. He retired from international rugby three years ago, probably too soon, but, by doing so, may, like others, have prolonged his playing career. In his prime, he was, for a couple of years at least, perhaps the best No 9 in the northern hemisphere, but it was his misfortune rarely to play behind a dominant Scotland pack, capable of providing the quick ball which, for example, the Ireland forwards have supplied to Conor Murray this year. Blair will doubtless make a considerable contribution to Glasgow on the field, and perhaps an even more important one off it. Anyone who has read his contributions to the BBC rugby website will know that he is an acute and highly intelligent analyst of the game.
As he goes in through Glasgow’s revolving door, Al Kellock comes out. He may not have been one of Scotland’s greatest lock forwards, though he was a pretty good one, but nobody in the professional era has meant more to his club than Kellock. He has led Glasgow forward and driven them forward, being the heart of the club much as, say, Alan Quinlan was for Munster in their glory years. Moreover, he captained the first Scotland team to win a Test series overseas, when both matches were won in Argentina in 2010. He has always led by example, and I would guess that young Jonny Gray would be quick to acknowledge his debt to his Glasgow mentor. It’s not over yet, of course. Glasgow are still in line to head the Guinness 12 table and to win the play-offs. Lifting that trophy would be the right send-off for Big Al.
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