Heineken Cup: Allan Jacobsen shaping up for success at last

Allan Jacobsen is ready for a fight against Toulouse. Picture: SNS
Allan Jacobsen is ready for a fight against Toulouse. Picture: SNS
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“It is just really exciting. There is a buzz among the players at the crowd numbers for this game”

EDINBURGH’S redoubtable prop Allan Jacobsen might be forgiven for finding things a bit weary in his 34th year and after another Six Nations experience that promised much and delivered a big fat zero.

But the ‘Chunk’ from Longniddry could not be more buoyant and it stretches beyond the excitement around this afternoon’s Heineken Cup quarter-final with Toulouse. Sure, that has lifted everyone in and around the Edinburgh camp, if not across Scottish rugby, but one of three survivors from the club’s first quarter-final appearance – Mike Blair and Andrew Kelly are the others, while Toulouse have five – Jacobsen is convinced that Edinburgh and Scotland are closer to success than at any time in his career, and he wants a part of it.

The straight-talking prop agrees that taking down the four-times European champions will be an immense test on a par with any international one this season, but he can picture Edinburgh coming off Murrayfield to rapturous applause at full-time and Toulouse holding their heads in their hands.

His age is an irrelevance to him. A prop famously reaches his peak in late 20s early 30s, and if one accepts that Scots tend to develop a bit later than many in the game due to the relative lack of competition at an early age, then it is understandable why Jacobsen feels in the form of his life now.

“I do feel like I can go longer,” he says. “In each of the last few years I’ve gone into the season feeling fitter and better, and obviously you have more confidence from having more experience, so as long as my body holds out I see no reason to stop.

“I have another year on my current contract and I want to push on over the next year to prove I am worthy of another one. I have spoken to a lot of guys who have stopped and wished they hadn’t, though some had to because their body hasn’t been able to handle it anymore. Mine is good, and I still want to play, and still want to win.”

That last comment lies at the heart of the prop’s buoyancy. Players play to win, and while adrenaline can take them beyond normal limits, only winning sustains that feeling.

Jacobsen made his debut for Edinburgh in November 1997, against the touring ACT Brumbies, having emerged from the Preston Lodge club and age-group rugby with the district and Scotland under-18 and under-21 sides. There were not a lot of wins there.

He was pushing for a chance in pro rugby at a time when Tom Smith, David Hilton, Peter Wright, John Manson, Steven Ferguson, Neil McIlroy, Willie Anderson and Millan Browne were holding down Scottish spots. Scotland was still grappling with the transition from amateur rugby to professional, clubs were whingeing and Jacobsen was among the new generation of props.

Only he didn’t look it. His shape mirrored that of older props around him and, perhaps unsurprisingly, his love of pies and the odd pint was not curtailed in that environment. In fact, for all that Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan tried to inculcate a new professional approach, it was a slow process with such veteran ‘visionaries’ of the time.

Nicknamed ‘Chunk’ by a PL under-16s teammate who had grown fond of the film ‘The Goonies’, and its character ‘Chunk’, Jacobsen enjoyed learning at the feet of some lauded internationalists. He was handed a pro contract in 1999 in an Edinburgh squad that included Matt Proudfoot – now the Blue Bulls coach – Barry Stewart and Grant McKelvey, and made his Heineken Cup debut against Northampton, in December 1999, a month before Pat Lam’s Saints lifted the cup.

He has vague recollections of that game, but the pictures of 2003-4 are clearer, of when Edinburgh beat Toulouse at Meadowbank 23-16 then lost the final pool match in Toulouse 33-0, and so were handed a return in the historic first appearance by a Scottish side in the quarters, and were beaten 36-10.

“I was thinking about that earlier this week. I was 25 then and I don’t think I realised how good our team was,” he said. “Toulouse have always been brilliant and I have always loved playing against them, and watching them. Beating them at Meadowbank was brilliant but they were just so physical over there we couldn’t compete.

“Comparing then and now is hard because we have more young guys coming through now, although with an experienced core. I’m seeing it from the other side I suppose, one of the older guys, but this season has felt similar to 2004.

“We’ve beaten Northampton and Wasps here, but we were already out really; this year has been different. We’ve been building towards something with each game.”

The question today is whether they can surpass the 2004 feat with the backing of a massive home support? Ultimately, they did not win eight years ago and nor did it provide the springboard to success that Jacobsen admits he expected.

He came along too late for the 1999 Five Nations success, was not involved in the Calcutta Cup wins of 2000 or 2006, and was in terrific form for the 2007 World Cup only to suffer a painful calf injury in the first game and be sent home. He was part of the Calcutta Cup win in 2008, and in the front row that beasted Australia, Ireland, Argentina and South Africa to claim historic triumphs through 2009 and 2010.

“That is where the confidence started to build from, certainly for me, those wins. Yeah, everyone else is moving on too, but I know we’re getting better and that’s why I don’t feel I’ve had enough yet.

“At the start of the last few seasons I have genuinely believed that ‘this is going to be it; this year we’re going to have a good year’, with Edinburgh and Scotland. I know we have improved and it gets frustrating because it feels like you’re just saying the same thing.

“But I played my first Six Nations game in 2004, and I’ve experienced a lot of games where we’ve been well beat, and known that we didn’t really have a chance of winning the game.

“But that’s gone in the past couple of years. This year, we were in the position to win all the games we’ve played, and while it is frustrating that we didn’t, that actually has made me more enthusiastic. Maybe that sounds stupid.

“I get embarrassed speaking to the media and people because I know that from the outside looking in, it probably doesn’t look any different; the results are the same; we’re getting beat. But from the inside, from my experience of the last ten years, we are more competitive; we are better. It’s still not good enough though. We have to take the next step and stop being gallant losers. It would be great if that started this weekend.”

Jacobsen has been loyal to Edinburgh, and turned down offers to join French and English clubs, insisting that he took them seriously but “when it came to the bit” he felt his home team had it in them to be successful, and he did not want to miss that opportunity. He surpassed Tom Smith’s record as most-capped prop in the recent Six Nations, but spent the last torturous game in Rome with his ankle strapped up after spraining it in the warm-up and watching his new rival, Jon Welsh, play superbly well having gone from 23rd man to starting loosehead just a minute before the teams ran out.

He could become Scotland’s most-capped front row as early as next year with Gordon Bulloch’s 75-cap total catchable in 2012-13, but he rates Welsh highly and is looking merely to respond to that challenge again by finishing the season well and reclaiming the No 1 jersey on tour.

The focus turns back to this afternoon and his home from home, Murrayfield. No Scot has played more Heineken Cup matches than Jacobsen, the prop recently edging past Chris Paterson en route to today’s 69th appearance.

The pies and pints are in the past, in-season anyway, Jacobsen having learned the real value of professional rugby: the ability to train better, more regularly and for longer.

He still has the ‘Chunk’ shape that allows him to hold his own against men bigger than his 5ft 10in and 18-stone frame – such as today’s opponent, 6ft 3in, 20-stone Census Johnston – but he is fitter than ever, and now has knowledge and confidence that comes from experience.

“Games like this get you excited,” he says. “I don’t think we will ever play in a bigger home match than this one. As a Scottish player you might be lucky to play in one like this in your career – how many times will Glasgow and Edinburgh play in front of over 30,000? If it starts happening regularly I’ll be delighted. But it’s up to us to make it happen. This will be the hardest game Edinburgh have ever played, the hardest game that a lot of our guys have ever been involved in, but we can win it.

“We have the same ‘never say die’ spirit that the 2004 squad had, where nobody takes the easy option; everybody works to get off the floor, to get round the corner. That’s the key to winning – trusting each other. If everyone does that against Toulouse then whatever happens happens, but there’s a good chance we’ll win.”

He adds: “It is just really exciting. We have prepared for this game in the same way as any other, and been methodical. But there is a buzz among the players at the crowd numbers. I’ve heard from a lot of ex-players coming up and lots of guys who played for the Edinburgh district.

“We now need to play with confidence and take it on from here. We can beat anyone on our day, but we have to get more consistent, with Edinburgh and Scotland.

“We have great young guys coming through again, but we need them coming into a winning environment if the next decade is going to be better. I believe it can be, but for now I’ll just worry about this weekend.”