THREE years ago Edinburgh stunned the rugby world and gave themselves a nosebleed in the process by reaching the semi-final of Europe’s Heineken Cup. They did so with a young, gangly 21-year-old lock on board and Grant Gilchrist must have presumed that his club would be contenders every year.
Edinburgh are still suffering from that Heineken hangover. After winning six out of eight in Europe that season the club has won just three from 12 since, and don’t even mention their league form. After finishing eighth in the Pro12 last time out, Edinburgh find themselves in the second-tier European Rugby Challenge Cup, drawn in Pool 4 alongside London Welsh, Lyon and Bordeaux Begles, with the thirsty press pack volunteering for the trip to France’s wine country.
“Obviously you want to get back there,” says Gilchrist as he recalls that cup run of 2011/12, which ended in a 22-19 defeat to Ulster in front of more than 45,000 people at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. “We played in a Heineken semi and I think we should have won. I remember coming off that pitch with no sense of achievement but just pissed off that we had lost a game that was there for the winning. We could have been at the Heineken final! It’s a game of rugby and I know Leinster in the end gave Ulster a bit of a hiding [Leinster won 42-14] but we could have been there.
“A lot of guys who were involved are still here. There were a lot of young guys in that squad making their debuts... Dents [David Denton], Matty [Scott], a core of guys, Fordy [Ross Ford] was obviously still there, I think these are the guys that have been there and we have to use our experience in the Heineken Cup and say that this club should be aiming for that because we don’t want to be forever known for just one freak season. We achieved well and we have to aim for that every time. Obviously we are disappointed that we are not in the top-tier competition but it puts the onus on us to make sure that happens.”
Not much has gone right for the club since, and rumours that Holyrood is to add bashing Edinburgh Rugby to the list of banned bloodsports cannot be entirely dismissed. Not to say they don’t deserve it. Some sort of nadir was reached earlier this season when Edinburgh shipped 62 points and nine tries to the Ospreys, two records they could do without. Harsh truths were doubtless aired afterwards and when Edinburgh lined up against the Scarlets at Murrayfield a week later the result was... a try to the Welsh club after 55 seconds.
A foreign coach in the form of South African Alan Solomons attracts plenty of criticism, especially after signing so many of his fellow countrymen, some of whom are not all they were cracked up to be but if there is a fault in the culture of the club it is surely something for the players to rectify since they have more emotional capital invested in the club than anyone else.
“Alan [Solomons] has been strong on that,” Gilchrist agrees. “He identified the five guys he sees as leaders and he wants us to drive the standards. It’s on us. The coaching team are excellent, we are well prepared to play every game. We do our homework. We train well. It’s about the execution on a Saturday. Not just the gameplan but playing with a real energy and that comes from the senior guys.”
Thankfully, Pool 4 does not look overly hazardous even for an Edinburgh team down on their uppers. Lyon and London Welsh are fighting for survival in their respective domestic leagues but, first up, Edinburgh must travel to Bordeaux Begles, who have a bit of form behind them – as Gilchrist points out.
“I have watched a bit of Top 14 recently and I saw Bordeaux play against Clermont at the weekend before and they put 50 points past them! They are a top outfit but obviously with the French you don’t know how seriously they will take it. We are expecting three very difficult rivals but we have to aim high.
“We said at the start of the season that we want to get out of the pool, we want to aim at the knock-out stage and once you are there, as we know from that game against Toulouse at home, if you get to knockout rugby, you pitch up and play your best game and you can beat anyone. I think we have the players to do that.”
No one has a bad word to say about the giant lock and it’s easy to see why. He is amiable, relaxed, one of life’s laissez faire folk but the laid-back exterior hides an inner core that is less yielding. With just six caps to his name Gilchrist was asked to captain Scotland on the second leg of the summer tour and the national coach Vern Cotter declared that he had done “exceptionally well”. There is something admirable about Gilchrist standing up and backing Edinburgh Rugby, his club, despite the capital outfit remaining largely unloved by others.
“I really care about this club and there are a lot of guys who do,” he says.
“It really hurts that we hear people talking the way that they do. They have a right to say that. We have to play with that chip on our shoulder and make sure that there is nothing that can be said.
“I definitely think someone will get a hiding. It’s a mixture of confidence and execution. The time for talking is done. I am sick of talking about how we are going to turn it around, it’s time to start doing it.”