ThIS season will almost certainly see the back of the Heineken Cup in its present format after a 19–year lifespan.
The tournament enjoyed a low-key start, English and Scottish clubs did not compete in the first season and, for any anoraks out there, the first ever European tie was held in Constanta, Romania, of all places. Toulouse won that one and they went on to beat Cardiff in the final in front of just 21,800 fans at the old Arms Park.
That original tournament in 1995-96 involved teams from France, Wales, Ireland, Italy and Romania. One year on, everyone else joined the party, with Edinburgh the first Scottish side to experience European rugby, drawn to play against the then all-conquering Bath at the Recreation Ground on 12 October, 1996. They lost by the considerable margin of 55-26 but, as the captain on the day Scott Hastings explains, it could have been worse.
“Bath were a properly run, fully professional club whereas Edinburgh’s players were just pulled together from their clubs for this competition,” says the former Scotland centre. “It was our first match together and it was a daunting task, especially since they had a certain Jason Robinson on one wing and he made huge metres every time he got the ball. I think that I even had to take a day’s holiday from my day job to travel down to a Bath side that was training every day. We were still training at nights!
“At half time we were losing so badly that I told the boys that we were facing a 75-pointer unless we battened down the hatches, dug deep and won some possession and, thankfully, that is what we managed to do.
“We weren’t in that first half but to our credit we came back and [full-back] Derrick Lee scored a superb try and Hodgey [Duncan Hodge] got the other one. We got some parity but we also realised that, because we had stepped up into a new era of professional rugby, we were going to have to change everything.”
Seventeen years down the line, Edinburgh still look like they are playing catch-up with some of the European Cup’s big beasts, with the exceptions of 2004 and 2011 when the club made progress beyond the pool stage and, in the latter run, went all the way to a Dublin semi-final. Those remain the only two appearances by a Scottish team in the last eight and it’s fair to say that the Scots have struggled in modern times every bit as much as Hastings’ original side did back in 1996, when Bath were close to their awesome best.
The West Country club had a backline that boasted Mike Catt, Jeremy Guscott and the twin rugby league converts of Henry Paul and Jason “Billy Whizz” Robinson. Hastings, one of the best defensive centres Scotland has ever produced, recalls: “I was told afterwards that I had actually tackled Robinson but I had to admit there and then that it was only because he had run right into me.
“Overall, it was a disappointing campaign because, after that game, we lost to Pontypool and Treviso. We just misfired in that campaign. We quickly realised that the competition and the level of rugby we were experiencing was far more professional than the level Edinburgh were at that time.”
Hastings was the compere at the Scottish launch of this season’s Heineken Cup last week, although he is more usually found behind the microphone as an informative and refreshingly impartial commentator for Sky TV during HSBC’s World Sevens series and the Heineken Cup. In the latter role he has witnessed most of Edinburgh’s high and lows in the competition and so is better placed than most to offer advice on how his former team can haul themselves out of their current rut.
“[Head coach] Alan Solomons has inherited a squad that is lacking confidence,” says the man who never faced the same accusation in his playing days. “There are some signings that have prevented the team from gelling and I still think Alan has got to put his mark on the squad and there has to be a clear-out of players.
“The players meanwhile are under pressure and they are not performing. He [Solomons] has to create a structure and environment in which the players can buy into playing attacking, dynamic rugby. Somehow, two years ago, although Edinburgh had disastrous domestic form, they played some outstanding rugby in Europe. There were little last-minute drop goals that won matches and that run was all about momentum. There have been a few changes of personnel and I think Edinburgh have lost their way a little.”
Hastings reels off the names of those who are missing: Mike Blair, Chris Paterson, Netani Talei, Allan Jacobsen (the 2011-12 model rather than the later one). And Hastings suggests that, while Edinburgh may have replaced prop forward Jacobsen, they have yet to find such a forward character. Edinburgh need, he suggests, an aggressive, hard, dynamic player to galvanise the pack the way that Fijian No.8 Talei inspired that Heineken Cup run.
Solomons stressed last week that his team would benefit from the return from injury of several key men, including skipper Greig Laidlaw, centre Matt Scott and the league’s perennial top scorer Tim Visser. Still, the South African coach has a task that would cause Hercules to hesitate. He needs to add defensive rigour and some sort of structure to his new team without throwing out what makes Edinburgh occasionally brilliant to watch and dangerous to play – that uncanny ability to score tries from all corners of the pitch.
Solomons appears to want his team to attack with the ball in hand, but only in the opposition half of the field, and he doesn’t really have the big ball-carrying backs to implement a territorial gameplan, although Ma’a Nonu is out of contract in New Zealand.
“In his defence, Solomons has come in late into the season,” Hastings argues.
“He has had to bring in some players and set in place his structures and I think that he thinks that some of his players are not able to deliver what he is looking for. Some of the great coaches I’ve played under have always given the players a say in how the team plays but, in the modern era, it is very much a case of playing in a certain style, a certain structure, a gameplan. Look at Rob Penny, who brought a lot more width to Munster’s traditional tight, driving game. There were real concerns but I think that Penny has won that argument and the players are enjoying it with the likes of Simon Zebo able to show what he can do.
“Edinburgh are perhaps trying to do the opposite and tighten things up a little but, for me, the whole thing boils down to bloody hard work. It boils down to what happens on the back pitches at Murrayfield. And they need to win, anywhere, anyhow, Edinburgh have to win some matches. Winning gives the team confidence and they will build on small successes. Edinburgh have some good players but they need to get the best out of them.”
It may not come across on television during the day job but Hastings remains as passionate about his old club off the field as he once was on it.