By a quirk of fixtures fate Edinburgh travelled to Cardiff on the opening day in each of the last two seasons.
In 2016 they lost 34-16 and much the same was expected of the league’s perennial underachievers when Edinburgh visited to Cardiff in September of last year for the season’s opener. Cardiff had hit their stride at the tail end of last season, with a string of wins and a one-point defeat to Leinster at the RDS. A dangerous team then, just as they are now.
The Blues kicked an early penalty to touch, eager to attack Edinburgh’s soft underbelly with a driving maul. It was repulsed and the visitors eventually ran out 20-10 winners, a result that raised a few eyebrows, thanks to tries from Chris Dean and Blair Kinghorn.
The sides meet again on Saturday in the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup at BT Murrayfield.
At the same stage of the competition last season Kinghorn endured a horror show, with a string of elementary errors that suggested he would rather be facing root canal surgery than filling the last line of defence for Edinburgh on a Friday evening. Some sort of nadir was reached when La Rochelle’s
5ft 7in scrum-half Arthur Retiere, one of the smallest men on the field, ran right through a less-than-robust tackle from the Edinburgh full-back, one of the biggest.
Both Kinghorn and the club whose colours he sports have travelled a long way since then under the watchful eye of workaholic coach Richard Cockerill.
“I feel like we are playing much better rugby this year and we’re winning, which makes you happy,” said Kinghorn, who gets few marks for originality of thought but it’s still nice to see him enjoying the game again.
“Last year we didn’t have the best run of games, [or] run of form personally. This year the team are performing really well, we are backing up week to week and training well and we are getting the results come game time. I am really, really enjoying this season so far.
“It’s the brand of rugby that we are playing, it’s been working really well. The back three and the centres are getting the ball in some space after the forwards are doing the hard yards for us.”
Edinburgh have now won seven of their last eight matches in all competitions. They are third in the league, nose-bleed territory for this club, and Kinghorn’s own tank of self-belief must be brim-full after the big full-back deputised for Tommy Seymour off the bench in that astonishing Calcutta Cup victory before starting against Ireland two weeks later, and grabbing a well-taken try from the unusual position of the right wing.
Not that he cares where he plays. Like another Scot from an earlier era, Kinghorn better get used to being asked his preferred position because Chris Paterson fielded that one on a daily basis.
The Challenge Cup hasn’t always garnered the greatest reviews and certainly Edinburgh’s pool was less than taxing, containing, as it did, a Russian club and the Aviva strugglers London Irish who would have swapped a four leaf clover for a couple of league points. Edinburgh lost just once, to Stade Francais on the road, their only defeat in a run of six wins which included the scalps of twin Irish giants Leinster and Munster.
You suspect that a part of coach Cockerill would like to abandon the European adventure altogether as his side is locked in a tussle with Ulster for that third play-off spot although second place in their Pro14’s Conference B and a home quarter-final isn’t impossible.
“The bread and butter of the league is always what you mark yourself on,” says Edinburgh’s pugnacious coach. “With respect to the Challenge Cup, our group wasn’t particularly strong. Irish didn’t take it overly seriously, Krasny Yar and Stade…who knows? We have just approached every game trying to win it.
“I don’t think we are a team that is good enough to prioritise anything at the moment. Historically this is a new [place] for this team to be in this stage of the [league] competition, the play-offs is heady heights for us. I don’t know the last time we were in the play-offs in a league format as big as this. Every week we will put out what we think our best team is to win the next game.”
Cockerill claims not to know, but every Edinburgh fan will be able to fill in these uncomfortable blanks: since the play-off system was introduced in season 2009-10 Edinburgh have yet to feature in eight years of post-season games. There is work still to be done but to qualify at the first time of asking under the abrasive Englishman would be worth shouting about, although he offers a word of warning.
“I think ourselves and Cardiff are the two form teams of the Pro14, we are the only ones who haven’t lost throughout the Six Nations period. So on their day they are a good enough squad to beat anybody. They will come with confidence and hopefully we will be confident because we have played well against Connacht. There is no reason why we can’t win and go to a semi-final.
“But all the problems [of Edinburgh] haven’t been solved just because we have had a pretty good run. We are still developing, we are still growing, we are still learning.”
Few as quickly as Kinghorn. Attack coach Duncan Hodge talks about the maturity of a player who is still only 21, insisting that the full-back has made big strides even since the start of the season.
If Kinghorn has improved, so too have Edinburgh and when asked specifically about what has changed at the club their No.15 immediately nominates the so-called “sweat rate” because for far too long Edinburgh were just playing at professional rugby.
“I think our work rate this year is better, on the field and off the field,” says the full-back. “I feel like we are putting in the hard yards behind closed doors, doing reviews and analysis and stuff like that.
“The consistency of training, the consistency of work rate throughout the whole season has been right up there and that’s in line with our results.
“We have been consistently backing up. We are a good team in that we can turn over big teams. We are always in the final [ten minutes], I think that is due to our mentality. Getting a bit of dog in us and just consistently working hard.”
Does that mongrel come from their shaven-headed, bolshy English coach?
“That is something that he has brought,” Kinghorn affirms. “He always tests you mentally, every week. Some of the stuff we are doing is tough and it does test you but that creates good character in you.
“When it gets tough in games you know that all the boys around you are with you and working together as a team and the opposition is definitely feeling worse.”
Edinburgh are some way off the best in the Pro14 but they are at least suffering serious hardship at the hands of their new task master and that counts as a genuine compliment in this business.