Rugby: Edinburgh’s international rescue mission

Another week has gone by with Edinburgh continuing to sign up their very own version of the foreign legion.

Project: WP Nel with the ball in Edinburghs 22-9 home loss to the Scarlets on Friday. Picture: Joey Kelly

Head coach Alan Solomons drafted in two more overseas players in the shape of Argentine Tomas Leonardi, who played under the South African at the Southern Kings, and the Hawke’s Bay skipper Mike Coman. Those signings brought the club’s summer intake up to 14 players, which doesn’t include the youngsters in the academy, and they are still looking to add a few more names.

The club now boast almost an entire team’s worth of foreign (ie non-Scottish qualified) players. There are 13 in all, ten of whom are forwards. If the fancy took him, Solomons could field a pack entirely staffed by foreign forwards: Wicus Blaauw, Aleki Lutui, WP Nel, Izak ven der Westhuizen, Perry Parker, Dimitri Basilaia, Tomas Leonardi and Mike Coman, and still have space for another couple of non-Scots on the bench in Sean Cox and Cornell du Preez.

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That scenario may be unlikely, but there is a very real risk that several players desperately needed by Scotland coach Scott Johnson could be left alarmingly short of game time come the autumn Tests.

Geoff Cross is probably Scotland’s back-up tighthead behind Euan Murray, and Ally Dickinson performs the same understudy role to Ryan Grant on the other side of the scrum but, with Nel and Blaauw in Edinburgh’s ranks, just how much opportunity will the Scots get to press their claims?

At least one of the foreign legion, Nel, is a “project player” who hopes to turn out for Scotland once he has served the International Rugby Board’s laughably short three-year residential requirement.

Scottish Rugby Union chief executive Mark Dodson has said as much and Nel conveniently qualifies for Scotland just ahead of the 2015 World Cup.

According to the South African press, the desire to play for Scotland is also true of 22-year-old breakaway Du Preez, the who also joined from the Southern Kings. However, he has only signed a two-year contract so, while he may harbour personal ambitions of playing Test rugby in blue instead of green, he does not appear to have been targeted specifically for that reason. At the moment, he is here to help drag Edinburgh up the league. With one win from four outings this season, they are anchored to the bottom of the Pro12 and look lost, but the timing is far from ideal.

On the same day that Coman’s signing was announced, one headline claimed Pro12 clubs could face “financial oblivion”. Admittedly the quote came from Bath backer Bruce Craig, who happens to be one of the movers and shakers behind the new, rebel Rugby Champions Cup being pushed by the English and French clubs, but he has a point. If there is no European competition next season, and right now that is entirely possible, the SRU would lose approximately £4 million.

Edinburgh have embarked on a spending spree just when the SRU’s annual cheque from ERC is far from certain. This induces cold sweats in those who remember the financial mismanagement of Murrayfield’s recent past.

When Andy Robinson dragged Edinburgh to second place in the league back in 2008/09, he did so with a squad that was almost exclusively Scottish. The exceptions were Irish lock Ben Gissing and the Kiwi duo of scrum-half Ben Meyer and flanker Matt Mustchin. Even then, the latter qualified for Scotland by residency and earned five caps.

That same Edinburgh team cuffed Glasgow 39-6 in the Murrayfield leg of the inter-city derby, which just shows how quickly the worm can turn in the sporting world.

Glasgow currently boasts seven non-qualified Scots, one of whom, South African Josh Strauss, is a project player who will also qualify for Scotland in time for 2015. More often than not the Edinburgh XV of that hugely successful 2008/09 season was exclusively Scottish and that matters. When you only have two professional teams in the entire country, that matters a lot.

Solomons might feel that he needs the foreign legion to stiffen the spine of an Edinburgh squad that is not noted for its Rorke’s Drift defence. But a coach’s job is to make a team better and get them playing to their potential and this Edinburgh team is operating well below that level.

It is not a poor side, it’s a reasonable team with zero confidence that is playing badly and there is a big difference. Astonishingly, the club still has 13 of the players who started the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2011 after beating Toulouse in the quarter-final.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the imports will shine at Edinburgh because the culture of a club influences, for better or worse, an individual player far more than any individual influences the club.

Former All Blacks sometimes look a little ordinary when they are taken out of that world-class environment.

Buying in excellence from abroad won’t fix Edinburgh’s cultural issues. Only the current players and coaches can do that, assuming Solomons is there long enough to effect some change. If he fails and departs after one disastrous season, then some other coach will inherit his inflated squad just as Solomons inherited Michael Bradley’s.

Solomons is not to blame for this. His job is to improve Edinburgh and, if he deems it necessary to import a batch of outsiders, that is what he will do. His remit starts and stops with Edinburgh but Johnson, pictured, in his other job as SRU director of rugby, should be setting some boundaries.

Foreign players from all corners are signed by a South African coach working under an Aussie director of rugby who reports to an English chief executive. All the above are working tirelessly to help improve the house that is Scottish rugby but not one of them has any intention of setting up permanent residence in it.

If the club signs a few more of the foreigners that they are targeting, then one of Scotland’s two pro teams will soon be able to field XV players none of whom would be qualified to play for the national side.

It may help Edinburgh win a few matches this season but it’s difficult to see just how the foreign influx helps Scottish rugby’s longer-term goals.