As winter swept back into Edinburgh this week, so the hint of excitement around Scottish rugby returns. A stinking 6 Nations tournament effectively killed the positive vibe that had surrounded Scottish rugby over the winter months. As January drew to a close, Glasgow were riding high in the Rabo Pro12 and narrowly failed to escape their Heineken Cup pool, while Edinburgh had just booked themselves a Heineken Cup quarter final against the French giants Toulouse. At home, no less.
It was meant to be this warm fuzzy glow that was going to propel Scotland to a successful RBS 6 Nations tournament. As we all know, what transpired instead was an insipid tournament followed by the usual spell of navel gazing. However, it’s amazing what a week of sunshine and winning rugby can do for the soul. With both pro-teams victorious last weekend Edinburgh now go into the biggest game in Scottish club rugby for nearly a decade, hopefully having stopped the rot.
Edinburgh shouldn’t be here. That was the perceived wisdom amongst the talking heads back in November. Most predictions had Edinburgh as the Pool 2 make-weights, just there to make up the numbers against Cardiff Blues, London Irish and the Parisians of Racing Metro. Edinburgh had a tough first game away to London Irish but they stuck it out and got a better start than expected with a 1 point victory (19-20) at the Madjeski Stadium. If any Edinburgh fans bump into Shontayne Hape anytime soon they may wish to buy him a pint of something nice, his sin binning in the game was crucial to Edinburgh getting a winning platform. If that victory was important, what happened the following week was improbable.
Edinburgh returned home to face up to Racing Metro at a chilly Murrayfield and what followed was one of the classics of Heineken Cup rugby. Edinburgh had started like men possessed with Tim Visser scoring inside the first minute and they clocked up 17 points inside the first ten. The French came back with some exceptional play of their own and by the time the game entered the last 14 minutes they had a hefty 20 point advantage. Normally this would be game over, but there really was something in the air that night and Edinburgh stormed back (aided by a Racing Metro sin binning) and just kept scoring. By the time Laidlaw slotted over a conversion from out wide on the left touchline Edinburgh had completed an improbably turnaround to win 48-47.
What followed was two almost ‘normal’ games against Cardiff Blues with both teams winning their home fixtures. Dan Parks was at his metronomic best in Cardiff, and Cardiff also sneaked a losing bonus point from the match at Murrayfield meaning that Edinburgh would need, in all likelihood, a bonus point victory from one of their last two games.
Edinburgh travelled to Paris in early January knowing that nothing less than a victory would do. Racing Metro would want revenge. They didn’t get it. An inspired Edinburgh back-row (Denton, Rennie and Talei all scored tries) display was the foundation for a strong performance but Racing Metro would not give up. As the game entered the final moments the teams were tied on 24 points each. Cometh the hour, cometh the ‘World Class’ Phil. Poor Phil Godman, he’s not always a popular player amongst some of us here but he stood up that night in Paris. With the final whistle imminent Godman grew a set of mammoth sized knackers to knock over the winning drop goal.
Edinburgh welcomed London Irish to Murrayfield in the last pool match and, with Cardiff at home to Racing, knew that the bonus point victory was crucial. This was a strange game, the result never really in doubt but the tension was evident as the 10,000+ in attendance kept one ear on the score from Cardiff. Cardiff won, but crucially without 4 tries. Edinburgh had control of their own destiny. With 8 minutes remaining Edinburgh stepped up a gear and Talei added to earlier scores from Visser and Thompson. As the clock ticked down Lee Jones was the recipient of some good Edinburgh passing to dot down in the corner. A comprehensive victory, a bonus point and a ticket to the Quarter Finals.
So, here we are.
Edinburgh have sold over 30,000 tickets for this Saturday’s game and are pushing hard to get more folk in the ground. After the 6 Nations downer this is the perfect pick-me-up and in many way’s Edinburgh are the perfect antidote to post tournament blues. They play exciting rugby, attacking with abandon and, at times, with a beautiful disregard to defence and structure. Sure, they are sitting in the bottom reaches of the RaboDirect Pro12 but their focus has long since switched from the league to Europe. One thing Edinburgh have shown throughout their European journey has been incredible heart. The game at home to Racing Metro was as mad as a box full of badgers but was the best game of rugby I’ve ever seen in the flesh. To grind out narrow victories against Racing Metro (twice) and London Irish (away) shows a determination, and a spirit.
I’m not going to say too much about Toulouse, I’m sure someone else will provide a more detailed view than I could. All I’ll say is it’s Toulouse, they’re big and bad, pretty and pretty handy. Filled with genuine and frightening talent they can probably beat any club side, not just in Europe but the world (and probably a few international sides too). However, as the game is at Murrayfield in front of what we hope is a partisan crowd, perhaps they might lose some of the aura.
The victory over Scarlets at the weekend has come at the perfect time and means Edinburgh can go into this weekend with a spring in their step. With so many fans coming out this is a prime opportunity for Edinburgh to take club rugby in Scotland to a totally new level.