Bruce Douglas making Newport Gwent Dragons fire

Bruce Douglas won 43 Scotland caps before his international career went into reverse. Picture: SNS
Bruce Douglas won 43 Scotland caps before his international career went into reverse. Picture: SNS
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Edinburgh’s European semi-final rivals have seen a marked improvement in their set scrum this season – and have ex-Scottish international Douglas to thank for it

THEY have been here before, the semi-final stage of European competition. Just three years back Edinburgh were mixing it with the big boys in the Heineken Cup semis where they fell to Ulster in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium in front of 45,000 fans.

‘We will have a fighting chance whatever Dragons team takes to the field’

The numbers will be a little down on that figure for the European Challenge Cup match at BT Murrayfield on Friday, but Edinburgh have a much better chance of emerging victorious against the Newport Gwent Dragons and giving the capital club, for so long everyone’s favourite whipping boy, an unexpected shot in the arm at the tail-end of a season in which two Scottish pro-teams still have everything to play for.

First up, they must find a way past a Welsh region whose hopeless lack of consistency makes Edinburgh Rugby’s own rollercoaster ride look the very model of dependability. This is a team that beat the reigning champions, Leinster, in Dublin before falling to the Italian also-rans, Zebre. At least one aspect of the Dragons armoury has improved markedly over the course of the season. Their set scrum is no longer the pushover it once was and the Welsh side has a Scot to thank for it.

Bruce Douglas played throughout the Scotland age-grade teams in tandem with Euan Murray [at loosehead] and hooker Dougie Hall. Despite being born in Edinburgh, he never turned out for the capital club, instead starting his long career at Harlequins before going on to the Reivers, the Scarlets, Montpellier, Worcester, Bristol and fetching up at the Dragons on loan. He won 43 international caps, the last of which came when he was just 26. His career has been a little like Benjamin Button’s back-to-front life.

“I kind of think it was a reverse career,” says Douglas from Cardiff, where he now lives. “I was an international up front and then I became a journeyman player, I suppose. Normally players spent four or five years at a club, especially props, but I got my foot in the international set-up at a young age for some reason and later on I just didn’t get selected.

“I won’t pretend that I was a world-class tighthead, I had some good games and some poor games. I guess I never established myself as a starting player at my clubs for long enough to justify international selection.”

With one exception, as he later admits. For two seasons [2008-2010] Douglas was the starting tighthead at Montpellier, no one’s idea of an easy ride, but he returned to England in the hope of kick-starting his international career. Worcester were eighth in the Premiership when he signed, they had been relegated by the time he joined. Montpellier went on to compete in the final of the Top 14 the following season just to compound Douglas’s misery.

“That was my one regret,” he says. “I was playing as well as I ever had at Montpellier over those two seasons and I was a bit aggrieved because I didn’t think that the props Scotland were picking at the time were world class. I could have stayed on in France, but Worcester came in with a good offer and Alex Grove had just been capped, so I came home to further my international career. I wish now that I hadn’t been so desperate to play for Scotland again.”

Douglas’s connection with the Dragons goes back to last season when he was loaned to them by Bristol Rugby, his final club, and he played his final professional match for the Dragons against Treviso in April, 2014.

Dragons coach Lyn Jones called him into the office towards the end of last season and Douglas imagined he was being offered a one-year extension to his contract. Instead he was asked to do one day of coaching per week with the region. He jumped at the chance, not least because he had already dipped his toe in the water and found it to his liking.

Phil Davies, then coach at the Cardiff Blues, had invited the Scot to work with that region’s age-grade sides, a connection that led this season to Douglas being player/coach with the Blues’ feeder club, Cardiff RFC, who play in the Principality Premiership on a semi-professional basis. For a player who has ‘retired,’ Douglas looks pretty busy, with around 15 appearances for Cardiff RFC this season, even if most of them have come off the bench.

If Douglas is the Dragons’ scrum coach off the field, he has a handy lieutenant on the park. Kiwi prop Boris Stankovich has little to learn at 35, the same age as Douglas, but plenty of knowledge to impart after seven seasons at the Leicester Tigers. He has been joined by South African tighthead Brok Harris and, when the pair prop up either side of veteran international hooker Rhys Thomas, the Dragons boast a formidable front row.

“We have pretty good players,” says Douglas, “but, yes, consistency is an issue. There are a lot of young Welsh players at the club with a smattering of older heads like Ian Gough, Aled Brew and Boris Stankovitch, but the trouble is getting them on the park. There are a lot of injuries. We beat Leinster away, lost to Zebre and then beat Ulster at Rodney Parade, so there is a decent team in there if we can find it.”

The Dragons tend to play a little like Edinburgh used to, giving the ball plenty of width to utilise a dangerous back three in the form of Brew, Tom Prydie (the youngest ever Welsh cap at 18 years and 25 days) and Hallam Amos, with Jason Tovey the creative force whether from stand-off or full-back. The semi-final should showcase a contrast in styles because Douglas is not expecting Edinburgh to do anything different to what they have done this past two seasons.

“A lot of people questioned Alan Solomons’ foreign imports, but Edinburgh’s results have improved and he will stick to his plan, which is working. In semi-finals and play-off games, territory is the most important thing. Possession is overrated, so Edinburgh will play a tactical game based on big runners coming round the corner and on dominating territory. They will exert pressure and attempt to turn that pressure into points, but don’t expect us to go into our shells.

“We may not have all our old heads on the field, but the young guys are there on merit and we will have a fighting chance whatever Dragons team takes to the field. This is one of the biggest games in the club’s history.”

Having missed a few opportunities himself, Douglas will surely urge his Dragons to seize the moment.