Edinburgh try to get priorities right for Challenge Cup

Disappointment as Edinburgh fell at the final hurdle last season. Photograph: SNS
Disappointment as Edinburgh fell at the final hurdle last season. Photograph: SNS
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THERE is something about cup rugby that seems to speak to the Edinburgh Rugby psyche because they were semi-finalists in the old Heineken tourney back in 2011-12 and they went one better in the secondary Challenge Cup only last season, missing out to a physical Gloucester side expertly marshalled by Greig Laidlaw.

Repeating that run in the Challenge Cup again this time round the block is probably Edinburgh’s most realistic chance of silverware come the business end of the season. Alan Solomons’ side find themselves in Pool 5 alongside two French teams, Grenoble and Agen, and perennial Aviva strugglers London Irish.

As ever, the question is how much emotional capital the French sides will invest in this competition and, in the case of Agen, you suspect not very much. The famous old French club has lifted the Bouclier de Brennus on no less than eight occasions but the last of them was back in 1988, if not quite pre-history then at least pre-professionalism.

Ahead of this weekend, Agen were rooted to the bottom of the Top 14 with two wins from seven outings. Given the money that is at stake, they will almost certainly be focusing on Top 14 survival although that begs the question just how committed Edinburgh are to the Challenge Cup given that their coach, a qualified lawyer, was careful to differentiate between “needs” and “wants” last week.

“The Pro12 is important,” said Solomons. “We need to get a top six finish and be back at the top table in Europe. We understand that.

“We’ve got to look at our squad as a whole and do what’s in our interests week to week. In Europe we want to do well in the competition but in the Pro12 we need a top-six finish, that’s for sure.”

Whatever team they field, Edinburgh fans are going to have to dig into the Christmas savings early this year if they are to follow the side around Europe because Edinburgh also face Grenoble who, in contrast to Agen, are going great guns with four wins under their belt (ahead of this weekend) including one recent victory over Toulon, which propelled them to sixth in the Top 14.

Edinburgh met Grenoble once before, in 1999-2000 when the two teams shared the points with one win apiece. The current side are coached by former Ireland and Leinster hooker Bernard Jackman who is said to be an Ireland coach in waiting. He must be doing something right even if he raised a few eyebrows by signing Rossouw de Klerk after the South African prop left Glasgow under something of a cloud. At least an opening match at Murrayfield this Friday evening will give Edinburgh the chance to get off to a good start because, as they discovered four years ago, momentum is all in Europe.

During that famous Heineken run, Edinburgh’s campaign started with an away win against London Irish and things snowballed from there all the way to the semi-final where Edinburgh were narrowly beaten by Ulster.

It augurs well for the club that they are again drawn against Irish, who boast a large Scottish contingent. Clark Laidlaw has returned from making a Super Rugby name for himself with the Hurricanes to take up the role of assistant coach of an Exiles’ squad that includes Sean Maitland, Geoff Cross, Blair Cowan and two Scottish qualified scrum-halfs in Scott Steele and former Waratahs’ nine Brendan McKibbin.

He was raised in Australia but born in Scotland and McKibbin has stated that he would be tempted to throw his hat into the Murrayfield ring should Vern Cotter come calling. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne may have something to say about that, should the two meet.