Edinburgh Rugby: Wisdom of Alan Solomons

WHEN he was unveiled in midweek as the new coach of Edinburgh Rugby, much was made of Alan Solomons’ record of success in Ulster and South Africa, and that he has attained great things in those two countries is unarguable.

Even yesterday evening’s relegation of his Southern Kings side from the top rank of Super Rugby cannot detract from their director of rugby’s achievement in building a professional club from scratch – literally so, as he had to cobble together a side to play their first match against the British and Irish Lions in 2009.

His time in charge of the Southern Kings – amateurs just four years ago – ended heartbreakingly when his brave side just failed to beat The Lions in the two-leg promotion-relegation battle. Trailing 26-19 from the first leg, the Kings threw everything at their hosts and won the match with a late try from Scott van Breda.

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The 23-18 scoreline was not enough to overturn the deficit, however, and by an agonising two points the Kings went out of Super Rugby at the end of their initial season.

Nevertheless, Solomons can arrive in Edinburgh at the end of the week citing earlier successes with Currie Cup winners Western Province, Super 12 semi-finalists Stormers, the Springboks – he was assistant to coach Nick Mallett during South Africa’s record 17-match winning streak – and Ulster, who won the Celtic Cup at Murrayfield in 2003 and were unbeaten at Ravenhill in the Heineken Cup during his three years in charge.

He also coached the Barbarians to wins over England, Scotland and Wales in 2003, and several countries around the world credit him for their improvement during his time as a consultant coach with the International Rugby Board. Yet the same Alan Solomons presided over months of abject failure at Northampton Saints in 2004, the club’s chairman Keith Barwell sacking him after they suffered eight successive defeats in the Zurich Premiership.

Ironically, his first match in charge of Edinburgh will be the seasonal warm-up match against those very same Northampton Saints, scheduled for 7.30pm on Friday, 23 August at Franklin’s Gardens.

So what kind of man have SRU chief executive Mark Dodson and the Union’s Director of Rugby Scott Johnson recruited – he was always their target after the departure of Michael Bradley. By all accounts approachable and likeable, as well as a hard taskmaster, a pattern emerges when you study the career of Solomons, who turned from the practice of law to full-time professional rugby coaching in 1997.

At that time, professionalism was new to everyone, so Solomons had to help build the structures that made Western Province and then the Stormers such forces in South African rugby.

He assisted Mallett in the building of a formidable South African side before moving to Ulster, where he is still revered for his wholehearted commitment and painstaking approach to building the province’s fine side that featured the likes of Jeremy Davidson, David Humphreys and Andy Ward. Solomons liked Northern Ireland so much he made his home there. Indeed, his wife Mary stayed on while Solomons saw her only at holidays, and now the couple are looking forward to living in Edinburgh.

So what went wrong at Northampton? Reports at the time mentioned the fact that Solomons tried to blend in foreign internationalists to what had been a fairly entrenched side, even appointing one of the imports, Corne Krige, as the Saints’ captain.

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Northampton wanted a quick turnaround to get back to their heyday, and amidst talk of player revolts, Solomons did not have the time to build things his way.

That he has worked wonders with the Southern Kings is beyond doubt. South Africa’s legendary pioneer of mixed race rugby, Cheeky Watson, enticed Solomons to the old Boet Erasmus Stadium in Port Elizabeth – they subsequently moved to Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium – and his impact on the franchise has been massive.

Speaking to his local radio station before yesterday’s match, Solomons said: “I was brought here three years ago by Cheeky with the specific brief of preparing us for our entry into Super Rugby and taking us into our first year of Super Rugby.

“Part of that was on the coaching front, improving the quality of the side so that we could be competitive at Super Rugby level and I’d like to think we’ve been reasonably successful on that score.”

Tellingly, he added that the Kings’ youth academy has been a big achievement: “It gives me an immense amount of pride to see that almost 97 per cent of that academy is local and 65 per cent are players of colour.”

Every department of the Kings was enhanced during his time as director.

“We’ve got good coaching structures running throughout,” said Solomons, “all in all, we’ve come a long way from the old Boet Erasmus Stadium days and I’m honoured and privileged to have been part of this amazing journey.”

A builder, then, rather than an “impact” manager. Solomons’ initial contract with Edinburgh is for two years, which will take him past his 65th birthday. He may well need every day of those two years to rebuild the side after its spectacular collapse last season following the heroics of the year before.

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His paymasters at the SRU have shown they can be patient with coaches – after all, they put up with Scotland’s Australian coach Matt Williams for long after his sell-by date – and on the evidence of his career to date, everyone involved with Edinburgh Rugby may have to wait for the wisdom of Solomons to bear fruit.