Dealing with the pressure of big games is part and parcel of being a professional athlete, but when it comes to tomorrow night’s Guinness Pro14 match against Ulster, Edinburgh will also have a very different feeling to deal with: relief.
The pressure is there because Edinburgh, third in Conference B, are tantalisingly close to clinching a place in the end-of-season play-offs. The relief? That arises from the simple fact that, after years of underachievement when their league campaign would be all but over by now, this time they have something important to play for.
“It’s nice to be at this time of year and have something to really play for,” hooker Stuart McInally explained. “I’ve been at this club a while, and at this time of year you’re sometimes hanging on to the Challenge Cup and hoping to make something in that, because the league’s not gone so well.
“It’s nothing that I’ve experienced before, so it’s nice that we’re right up there this year. And I can’t credit the boys that have played while the Six Nations were on high enough, because they’re the ones that won five on the bounce and got us in the position where we are.”
Edinburgh also won their one league game in January before McInally and the other internationals disappeared on Scotland duty, so they have actually won on their last six outings in the Guinness Pro14. Any kind of victory tomorrow, with or without a bonus point, will take them into the play-offs for the first time. So there has been a significant improvement this season, not only when Richard Cockerill has had his first-choice team out on the field, but also during the international window, as McInally said. The recent run of good results includes a win over Ulster in Belfast, a factor that the hooker believes could be significant tomorrow.
“The boys have already done it, which is great,” he continued. “I’ve been at this club for eight years or so, and it’s generally been a period in which we’ve struggled, the Six Nations. We’ve tended to lose those games, so it’s really nice, when we’re away with the Six Nations, to watch the boys go so well.
“You come back and the pressure’s on, especially if you’ve been brought back in to play or to start – you’re expected to win, because the boys have done it. If you do get the honour to come back in and play, you need to do justice to the boys that have been working so hard the last two months to put us in a position now where if we keep winning we’re going to be in a good place at the end of the season.”
Meanwhile, Mark Bennett hopes to be passed fit to play against Ulster after sitting out training earlier this week with a neck strain.
The centre believes that the keys to success in his first season with the team have been a determination to win the respect of the other teams, and a willingness to work relentlessly.
“At the start of the season, as a club we just spoke about wanting to gain the respect of the guys in the opposition we were playing against,” Bennett said.
“Because the last few seasons there has been a perception that coming to Edinburgh was a great thing because you were coming away to a cracking city, going to a lovely place and would get the win.
“We’ve beaten top sides: we’ve beaten Glasgow, Munster, Leinster, Ulster – top, top sides. I’m absolutely delighted at how this season has gone, but what it has been built on is hard work. Week in, week out we’ve put in the graft on the training pitch and we are working hard. There’s a real collective desire to improve, which has been shown on the park.”