Edinburgh Rugby sell-outs can become the norm thanks to change of coach and venue - Allan Massie

Long ago officialdom insisted that the game is for the players, not spectators.

Hence the rebuke delivered by J Aikman Smith, secretary of the SRU, to King George V who had asked why there were no numbers on the jerseys of the Scotland team; “it is a rugby match, Your Majesty, not a cattle show.” Or so the story goes. Hard to believe, but Scotland were indeed the last of the Home Nations to help spectators identify players by numbering jerseys.

Well, of course, we have come a long way from then. Nevertheless for the first quarter-century of professional rugby, you didn’t have to be a cynic to believe that, as far as the Edinburgh Pro team was concerned, the SRU regarded spectators with indifference, even – if you felt bitter – contempt. How else to account for the SRU’s failure to provide the club with a ground of its own, and so condemn spectators to watching matches in the vast cavernous bowl of the international ground?

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The transformation since the club was at last provided with its mini-Murrayfield – the DAM Health Stadium – has been remarkable. Indeed so remarkable that when the club has its first-sell out match this evening, there will be some asking why it wasn’t built to accommodate a crowd of 10,000 rather than the just less than 8,000 that will be there this evening.

Of course it is not only the new stadium that has put a spring in the team’s step this season. The change of coach has also been important. Richard Cockerill had many merits. Technically acute and with the high standards one would expect from one reared and schooled in the traditions of Leicester Tigers, for so long the leading English club, he made Edinburgh a harder and more efficient team, but scarcely, or scarcely ever, a joy to watch. You might even have thought he shared the view of the SRU a hundred years ago and regarded spectators as an irrelevance who might count themselves lucky to be allowed to watch but certainly need not expect to be entertained.

His successor, Mike Blair, has changed the music. In his playing days he was one of the most talented and adventurous of scrum-halves. “Mike makes things happen”, the then Scotland coach Frank Hadden once said to me, and this is just what he has done since taking over the reins at Edinburgh, not only taking them over but loosening them. He has coached and selected his team with imagination, nowhere more evident than in the transformation of Blair Kinghorn, switched from full-back or wing to fly-half where he has been running the show with remarkable and unexpected panache.

Likewise Blair’s influence has been evident in the revival of Mark Bennett, now playing his best rugby for six years, that best being a delight to watch. It’s a revival that now poses a teasing question not only for the opposition, but for Gregor Towsend too. How does he weigh the admirable defensive solidity of Chris Harris against the brilliance of Bennett?

Edinburgh head coach Mike Blair speaks to fans before the recent ECPR Challenge Cup match against Bath at DAM Health Stadium. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)Edinburgh head coach Mike Blair speaks to fans before the recent ECPR Challenge Cup match against Bath at DAM Health Stadium. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
Edinburgh head coach Mike Blair speaks to fans before the recent ECPR Challenge Cup match against Bath at DAM Health Stadium. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

Edinburgh haven’t lost at home this season, but this evening they face a severe test. Ulster don’t have the magisterial presence of Leinster, arguably the best club side in the four Lions countries, and they may not have the history that seems often to give Munster a 7-point start in almost any match, but they are a mighty hard team to beat, partly because they seem to be fired by a grievance – the belief common in the province that an Ulster player has to be 10 per cent better than one from the other provinces to be selected for Ireland. Over the years they have a good record against both Edinburgh and Glasgow, and, one might add, their recruitment of non-Irish qualified players has usually been better than Edinburgh’s or Glasgow’s. They are not glamourous, but they are always hard... the toughest of tough nuts.

So this is a difficult match for Edinburgh and a mighty important one. They are close to being at full strength, even though one would prefer to have Darcy Graham on the right wing, admirable though his replacement Damian Hoyland is, and if they can win in some style this evening, they will demonstrate that they have grown up as a team this year, consigning to a less than happy past the flakiness, which has so often seen Edinburgh crumble when the going got tough. Win in style tonight and a full house will deservedly become the norm.



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