Cultural shift gives Ben Atiga reason for optimism

EDINBURGH’S results may not yet represent a real improvement on last season, but Ben Atiga believes that the difference in culture at the capital club is significant.

Ben Atiga says he has seen a dramatic improvement in attitude during his time at Edinburgh. Picture: SNS

The former All Black admits he struggled to fit in last season, pitching up as a new boy amidst the maelstrom of a club on a downward trend and enduring a run of injuries and fitness issues. On the surface, little has changed this season. With five to last year’s four at this point, Edinburgh have won one more game in the RaboDirect PRO12 and taken Munster’s scalp in the Heineken Cup.

It was in the Heineken Cup that the rot set in last season as the team finished their pool without a victory and did not enjoy success again, with more agonising one-point losses, until coach Michael Bradley was sacked and they rallied for Stevie Scott with three wins in the last five games.

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But Atiga insisted that the culture at Edinburgh is a world removed from that of last season. New head coach Alan Solomons has instilled a new ethos and drive at the club, Atiga said, changes that he believes are forming foundations to lift Edinburgh alongside Europe’s elite. But how and where are the changes being effected?

“I was a bit shell-shocked by the culture differences when I came here,” explained the Aucklander. “I knew there would be a culture change coming to Scotland and that it [settling in] was never going to happen straight away.

“But it was the attitude, I guess. We are a bit more laid-back in New Zealand in general and rugby terms. Here, with the way the season went, we were biting at everything. It was not an enjoyable environment to be in. It was really tough and a lot of fingers were being pointed all over the place. Not blaming, more just trying to find out where we were going wrong.

“There was a lot of pressure coming from the outside, but that comes with the territory when you’re under pressure and we were in a lot of strife. But it can also make it harder because you end up digging yourself into a big hole. For us as players, it was all about trying to stay tight and get around each other. It is hard to encourage guys to go out there and express themselves when you’re in a situation like that, constantly trying to break that drought.

“A new season helps, but this year we have made big steps forward in terms of our culture and it’s a bit more relaxed now. Alan Solomons and Omar [Mouneimne] are quite . . . well, straightforward,” he says, with a wicked grin which points to the strict discipline brought into training and barking orders regularly delivered by Mouneimne.

“They have the respect of the boys and definitely keep the guys on their toes, which is probably what we needed. But at the same time everyone is encouraged to enjoy themselves. Pressure builds every week, especially on this side after last season, so it’s about making sure that we enjoy the fact that we’re here doing what we love, and appreciate that, and take that mood on the field with us.”

That is encouraging for Edinburgh and Scottish rugby, but the critical factor is how that translates to on-field progress.

“If you were to compare now to where we were last season, the whole spirit on and off the field, we’re miles ahead of where we were,” Atiga continued. “But, of course, you can be a great team off the field and a great bunch of mates; at the end of the day it’s the results that count.

“That’s what the public demand and that’s who we are and what we are all about. But my point is that we need to build a winning culture, a tight culture, because that shows on the field when you need to dig deep, when you’re on the line defending as we were at the weekend when we were trying to get back in it. It’s a fight to the end now and that’s maybe the attitude we were missing last season.”

So, does the Heineken Cup still matter? With two defeats and two away games to come, chances of even being parachuted into the Amlin Challenge Cup are slim, while whatever European Cup emerges next season only a top six place in the PRO12 is likely to secure a place in it.

Solomons is acutely aware of that and plans to rest some key figures this weekend whom he feels have suffered mentally and physically from the attritional aspect of autumn Test defeats on top of pre-season training he ordered in season, on account of believing the players to be miles off where they should be. Double sessions daily for 12 weeks while playing, followed by Test matches, were bound to take a toll.

Solomons wants every player at full strength for the visit of Leinster on 20 December and back-to-back games with Glasgow in the following 12 days, but Atiga insisted that the players are continuing to think only of Sunday’s visit to Gloucester, and of lifting the team’s European standing.

“These games are very important to us,” he added, “especially after dropping a game at home. We know it’s a big ask [to qualify] but we are at a place now where we expect the highest standards from each other in every game, and to win every week regardless of who we play or where we play.”