Chronically under-funded, the boys from the west of Ireland have always been admired for their plucky underdog spirit but lacked the genuine class to win more games than they lost.
Times have changed and, with Pat Lam’s men sitting proudly atop of the Guinness Pro 12 table [having already accumulated more league points this season with six games to go than they have managed in any previous campaign], Edinburgh head coach Alan Solomons knows that his youthful team face a monumental challenge tonight if they are to stop their guests from extending their winning run to six straight matches in all competitions.
“In days gone by they were the Cinderella province in Ireland. That is no longer the case but they have kept that mentality. They will fight all the way and they have confidence because they are top of the league,” said the South African.
“Connacht are a side, and let’s be perfectly honest, that now has a big budget. They don’t get bothered too much with international call-ups – they won’t be missing major players apart from Robbie Henshaw – and they don’t have a massive injury list.”
“They are miles ahead compared to where they used to be and they have players who have done superbly well for them. Nathan White has been released by Ireland to play tighthead prop. John Muldoon has been there for years, so it is great for him and he is a talismanic figure for them.”
Edinburgh’s own preparations for this match have been boosted by the release of Matt Scott, Sam Hidalgo Clyne and Rory Sutherland from the Scotland set-up. However, with five other players still in national camp, plus nine more potential front liners out with injury, the strength in depth of the capital outfit will once again be strenuously tested.
Solomons has pleaded in the past for patience while the youngsters in his squad grow into their roles as professional players, but there was a notable change of tack at yesterday’s team announcement when he spoke about the likes of Jamie Ritchie, Damian Hoyland and Chris Dean being ready to step up to the mark as players capable of competing and winning at Pro 12 level.
“I look at this team and it excites me. We’ve had green-shoots of my vision but now we are in full swing of that vision. When you look at eight of the youngsters in that starting fifteen under the age of 24, and four more youngsters on the bench – that’s reality, that’s not just talking about it,” Solomons said.
“What gives me a thrill as well is that there are only five of those players who are not Scottish qualified, so that is a real positive.”
As satisfied as Solomons might be with how his young players are developing, he does acknowledge that to sit still in terms of adding firepower to the squad for next season is not an option. The key, as far as the wily South African is concerned, is to strike the balance between developing native talent and bolstering the team with hired guns.
“We’re pretty far down in terms of player recruitment and you saw Rory Scholes coming in from Ulster earlier this week. Our vision is to build a sustainable club through young Scottish talent, which we are doing and you are seeing now, but also we need to bring guys in from outside. Rory is a very talented player who is at a big spending club in Ulster and with David Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy and Luis Ludik there, plus Charles Piutau going there in the summer, his progress is being blocked – so it makes sense for him and us.”
“That is one thing I don’t want to do,” he added. “All our youngsters have to fight but there is a pathway for them, and we need senior players who are really going to contribute to making them better.”
Solomons reckons he picked tonight’s 23-man squad from a total of 27 fit players. With so many senior men missing at the moment, news earlier this week that Greig Tonks was being allowed to leave the club to join London Irish with immediate effect was bound to raise a few eyebrows. However, the coach says he had no qualms about releasing the player.
“My approach is that if the player wants to go then I just move on. We will have Duncan Weir at 10 next season, and there will be very strong competition at both stand-off and full-back – the positions Greig played. So he had an opportunity and it entailed moving prior to the cut-off date. That’s professional sport. It has created an opportunity for Blair Kinghorn, who did very well last week – and this will be another test for him.”