Iain Morrison: Edinburgh Rugby’s negligible progress under Alan Solomons

Alan Solomons had his contract renewed mid-season, so escaping any fallout from Edinburgh's late-season slump. Photograph: Bill Murray/SNS
Alan Solomons had his contract renewed mid-season, so escaping any fallout from Edinburgh's late-season slump. Photograph: Bill Murray/SNS
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It is a tough, uncompromising and at times brutal business professional sport – just ask the six players recently released by Edinburgh Rugby. There is no place for vegetarians where the law of the jungle holds sway: you either eat or get eaten.

Unless, of course, you have someone to watch over you. Scott Johnson originally hired Alan Solomons and Murrayfield’s director of rugby gave him a second contract extension when he should have handed the reins of Edinburgh Rugby to Steve Scott or Duncan Hodge along with a two-season deadline to get the club into the Champions Cup. Both Scottish assistant coaches are time-served and deserve the opportunity to emulate what Gregor Townsend has done with Glasgow Warriors.

I unearthed an article online that bewailed the fact that Edinburgh had missed their top-six target (and the Champions Cup rugby it guarantees) but went on to say that their South African coach was to be given another season. It was dated one year ago.

At least at the end of season 
2014-15 Murrayfield had the decency to wait until May 2015 before offering Solomons an extension; this season he got the nod for 2016-17 last December when his Edinburgh team were lying fifth in the Pro12. Wind the tape forward to last weekend and Edinburgh end the season in ninth place. Why extend the coach’s contract before the season has played out?

Admittedly there is some merit in continuity, especially at a club that has got through eight coaches in the last decade, but we know the top dog can have a dramatic effect on the playing pack. Pat Lam at Connacht, Rob Baxter at Exeter, Gregor Townsend and Steve Diamond, who has taken Sale Sharks into the Champions Cup with the lowest budget in the Aviva Premiership, all prove as much. Solomons has steadied the ship but three years on the SS Edinburgh Rugby is not so much steady as stuck, caught fast at the wrong end of the Pro12 table.

The coaching staff talk of the massive progress the club have made in recent years but in truth the club’s advance has been measured in baby steps. Edinburgh, we are told, is much better than it was under former coach Michael Bradley but since SRU boss Mark Dodson dubbed the club a “basket case” at the end of that era it’s fair to say the bar wasn’t set stratospherically high.

Here are Edinburgh’s statistics over the past four seasons.

Year Pos Wins Pts Tries Tries Pts off

for against sixth

*2012/13 10th 7 36 3 51 18

2013/14 8th 7 38 38 55 17

2014/15 8th 10 48 41 48 9

2015/16 9th 11 56 41 36 9

* under Michael Bradley

The above table indicates some positives. Genuine progress has been made in defence with tries conceded dropping from 55 in Solomons’ first calamitous season to just 36 in the latest league campaign and Edinburgh are inching closer to that top-six finish. Solomons is a decent man and a hard working coach but that shouldn’t exclude him from hitting performance targets and Edinburgh are playing well within themselves.

The club is no longer a basket case but nor should they be. Murrayfield are a little coy about handing out figures but given the long list of Southern Hemisphere players, many with Super Rugby experience, that have been brought in I’d guesstimate the current playing budget to be approximately £1-1.5 million more than Bradley’s spend, which buys you plenty imported beef.

The Irishman left Edinburgh in March of 2013 and just four players from his final match day squad remain with Edinburgh – WP Nel, Hamish Watson, Tom Brown and Dougie Fife, who was released at the end of this season. This Edinburgh squad is one of Solomons’ making with a host of imported talent at his disposal including two thirds of the current Super Rugby Champions’ back row, John Hardie and Nasi Manu, plus team-mate Phil Burleigh (all Highlanders), Andries Stauss (Sharks, Cheetahs), Cornell du Preez (Kings), Anton Bresler (Sharks) and Mike Coman (Hurricanes, briefly).

After three seasons, countless imports and goodness knows how much money, Solomons’ team is one position higher in the Pro12 table than Bradley’s “basket case” and yet the South African merits another kick at the ball!

“It is disappointing and Alan shares that disappointment and frustration of where we have ended up at the end of the season,” said Edinburgh’s managing director John Petrie last week, although on rugby matter he dances to Johnson’s tune.

“There is a view, and I subscribe to it, that we have moved forward over the period that Alan has been here but so have all the other clubs in the Pro12 and that is where we need to work hard to make that step change, to really take ourselves up the top end of the league…Alan remains massively passionate about taking this club forward and I see him as the right person to do that next year.”

It’s the fault of those pesky rivals who keep improving, dagnabbit! But that is the very essence of professional sport. If the All Blacks stood still Scotland would beat them within a decade. Improvement is natural in professional sport, although less obvious right now in the lacklustre Pro12 which failed to supply a single Champions Cup quarter-finalist. Edinburgh’s rivals enjoy very mixed fortunes: for every club like Connacht that is on an upwards trajectory there is another such as Munster who are headed in the opposite direction.

When he arrived Solomons infamously threw the club’s conditioning coach under the bus after his first, hapless season in charge and more recently he has blamed indiscipline, injuries and even the match officials when Edinburgh lost to the Scarlets in Wales.

He may be running out of excuses but Solomons’ forensic brain is adept at uncovering mitigating circumstances to lay before the jury. The opposition are invariably talked up like they were All Blacks in disguise, while the emphasis is put on Edinburgh’s long injury list, and the only purpose it serves is to undermine the confidence of his own players who read this stuff.

You can argue about their overly conservative playing style, the lack of rotation or the fact that the academy players are less integrated than they could be but all that would count for nothing if Edinburgh were fulfilling their obvious potential because at their best they are pretty handy, as they proved in the 1872 Cup, the only team to beat Glasgow twice in the league (with the help of two home ties).

In those two matches Edinburgh were highly physical, focused and utterly uncompromising in their approach, out-muscling Glasgow at the breakdown and smothering them in defence. It was a powerful statement and proof, if any were needed, that Edinburgh can compete with the best.

And you don’t need to go that far back. In their last outing of the season against the Blues, Edinburgh displayed the best and the worst of themselves, racing into a ten-point lead before tamely rolling over; ruthless, physical and focused in the first half, disjointed, uninterested and rudderless in the second.

“I am bitterly disappointed,” Solomons said after that particular implosion, as are we all, with one, glaring exception.