NOBODY could ever accuse Alan Solomons of having his feet planted anywhere but firmly on the ground, and he has been around the block enough times to be perfectly comfortable dampening down expectations when mischievous journalists try to put him on the spot.
So, it was no great surprise to hear the wily South African state yesterday that a top-six finish for Edinburgh in the Guinness Pro12 this season is what his sights are set on.
It is the same target as he spoke about last season – and which was still a realistic prospect before three losses out of the last four league games of the campaign left the team floundering in eighth spot by the time hostilities had ceased.
So, this might leave Solomons vulnerable to an accusation of being overly pessimistic about his teams prospects – until you scratch a little beneath the surface.
In truth, if Edinburgh had managed to climb into a European Champions Cup qualifying position last season it would have represented a jaw-dropping turnaround in fortunes for a team which managed just four wins in their 11 league outings before Christmas.
Even without that added complication of some awful luck in terms of injuries, finishing in the top six was a big ask for a team which had been literally thrown together during the summer. Edinburgh might have still been in touch when they came into the home straight, but they were living on adrenalin and guts. It was almost inevitable that they would drop off as the finishing line loomed into sight, while their rivals found an extra gear to kick on with.
When Solomons said last year that he would like a top six finish it was an indication of what he thought might be achievable if his team were caught in the eye of a perfect storm. This time round it is a declaration of intent – and not meeting that target will be nothing short of an out-and-out failure.
“In my first year [2013-14] I had nothing to do with recruitment which made things difficult so we had to clear the ground. We had 23 players depart at the end of that season and last year we made some progress, but we need to push that on a bit now,” explained the veteran coach, who celebrates his 65th birthday today.
“I think the absolute minimum is making the top six – and we were not far off it last year because we got more wins than Leinster who finished fifth, but less bonus points – so, that is the priority this year.”
The catalyst to the improvement in Edinburgh’s fortunes in the second half of last season was the confidence boost which came from picking up wins over Bordeaux-Begles, Lyon and London Welsh (twice) in the European Challenge Cup.
However, Solomons is not going to let that colour his thinking. He will view any success his team enjoy in Europe’s second tier competition this season as a nice bonus, but of no real significance in the grand scheme of things.
“We did well in the European Challenge Cup last year and we are in a tough pool this time around because London Irish have spent a lot of money and will be stronger, while Grenoble are tough in France too. But coming in the top six in the Pro12 is absolutely critical for us,” he reiterated.
The squad are at a training camp in St Andrews this week and Solomons says he is delighted with the way the preparation for the new season is going. He is especially pleased with the impact being made by some of the new faces in the set-up.
“It has been great to get away. We have 13 guys away with the national squad, but we have a lot of youngsters that we have brought up here – the likes of Academy boys Ross Graham and Lewis Carmichael have joined us, along with Murdo McAndrew and Neil Irvine-Hess from Melrose, and prop Craig Bachurzewski, who played for Biggar last season and is doing really well,” he explained.
“The new senior players have also fitted in well,” he continued.
“Will Helu is very experienced having played for Tonga and Wasps and I think he will add a bit of X-factor which we desperately need and will continue to look for. So that is a big bonus for us.”
“We know Michael Allen well from Ulster. He was always an outside centre, but he ended up playing quite a lot on the wing and he will be able to contest both those positions here.
“And Nasi Manu was co-captain of the Highlanders team that won Super Rugby and we are hoping that really shortly he will be joining us.
“So, by and large, the recruitment is done and we will have good strength in depth when everybody comes back from the World Cup. But before that some young players are going to have to come through and put their hand up – like Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury and Alex Toolis in the forwards.
“Chris Dean and Damien Hoyland are young backs who also have a great opportunity.”
Solomons also knows that emergency measures may be required if too many injuries strike during the period when his internationalists are away at the World Cup. “I am in close contact with Scott Johnson and Jonny Petrie our MD at Edinburgh, so we will just have to keep on top of that situation if problems do arise,” he said.