Bold approach pays dividends for Edinburgh
Ahead of today's semi-final against Ulster, Scotland coach Andy Robinson tells Chris Hewett how the Heineken has refreshed a club the other competitions could not reach
The Scots have hardly tripped over their own feet in the rush to earn their keep in European rugby: for too long, they have been union's equivalent of the twentysomething layabout who, happy in the knowledge that a hot meal will always be on the table courtesy of his doting mother, sees no particular reason to drag himself out of bed and make his mark on the world. One quarter-final in the first 15 seasons of Heineken Cup activity, a miserable win rate in the 30 per cent region, losing streaks the length of the West Highland Way... had Norman Tebbit been in charge of the best club tournament in the sport, he'd have told them to get on their bikes long ago. In fact, he'd have strapped them to their saddles with his bare hands and given them a push.
So what has happened here? How is it that in the year of another Scottish calamity in the Six Nations, the men of Edinburgh have responded to a dolorous performance at bread-and-butter level – they will finish 11th in this season's RaboDirect Pro12 league, with only the bankrupt, soon-to-be-defunct Italian side Aironi keeping them off the bottom – by blazing a trail into the last four of Europe, knocking out the four-time champions Toulouse en route to the uncharted territory of this afternoon's semi-final with Ulster in Dublin?
Andy Robinson understands it better than most. The Scotland coach lives in Edinburgh – during the working week, at least – and watches them regularly with a view to international selection, as well as making frequent appearances at training sessions. (He does the same with the country's second professional team, Glasgow, who have played rather better than their big-city rivals on a week-by-week basis and should qualify for the Pro12 semi-finals.) It might also be remembered that Robinson was the first British coach to win a European club title of any description: the Heineken in 1998, with his beloved Bath.
"What I like about Edinburgh in this season's tournament is their bold approach: they really took the pool stage on by attacking their opponents, whoever they were," he said this week. "Six tries against Racing Métro at home, three against them in Paris, another four against London Irish at Murrayfield – those are impressive returns. Alongside that was a flowering of the competitive spirit. They were under the cosh at times but they refused to lay down. Instead, they kept playing. That's what brought them through.
"I would also make the point that the quarter-final victory over Toulouse was, without the slightest doubt, the best result delivered by a Scottish club team in the professional era. It's something to which the sides have aspired in recent seasons and occasionally gone close to achieving: Glasgow have registered some good victories and when I was coaching Edinburgh we beat Leinster and Leicester back to back. The victory over Toulouse is a big step up from there, however. It was a knockout game in front of a record crowd at a very serious point in a very serious tournament. For Edinburgh to beat opponents of such quality on such an occasion signals real progress.
"Why are the two Scottish teams beginning to realise some of their potential all of a sudden? It's a competitive thing, primarily. The decision to focus professionally on the two big cities has been discussed and debated for years now, but what we're seeing currently is a deep and powerful sense of rivalry developing between the sides.
"When I look back to my days at Bath, we had an intense rivalry with Leicester that spurred both of us on. When we won the Heineken Cup in '98 it was a year after Leicester had made the final and lost. All that meant something. The same thing is growing between Edinburgh and Glasgow and it's good for the game here. Rivalry is one of the main driving forces behind improvement."
If Edinburgh spent long periods without the ball in beating Toulouse on quarter-final weekend, it is true to say that Ulster saw a whole lot less of it during their remarkable victory over Munster in Limerick some 24 hours later.
If the 1999 champions, with such hard-bitten loose forwards as Stephen Ferris and Pedrie Wannenburg, are happy to spend 90 per cent of a match playing as Chelsea played in Barcelona on Wednesday night, the spotlight must shift to the Scots and their attacking game. Do Edinburgh have the players to find a way through – or around, or over, or under – the barricades? For an answer, Robinson points to two back-rowers he now routinely picks at Test level: the open-side flanker Ross Rennie and the No 8 David Denton, both of whom play in a style reminiscent of the national coach during his successful career as a breakaway forward at Bath.
"They like the ball in their hands," Robinson said. "That's the first thing to note about them, and the crucial thing. They're creative, attacking players who are always looking to ask questions of defences. They also have pace – more importantly, a change of pace – and have the off-loading ability that is so crucial in modern rugby. They're intelligent, too: as good readers of situations, they make a lot of excellent choices.
"Finally, I'd point out that they've both had their disappointments lately. I didn't take David to the World Cup last year; Ross went, but wasn't given the starts he wanted and perhaps felt he deserved. That's part of a rugby player's development, in my view. The strength to rise above and conquer disappointment is an essential part of a top sportsman's make-up."
Of course, it is assumed in English rugby circles that individuals like Rennie and Denton have it easy: that because Edinburgh and Glasgow sides are guaranteed their seats at the Heineken Cup table year on year – as things are currently constructed, the two automatic places awarded to Scotland must inevitably be taken by the only two professional Scottish sides in existence – players can manage their seasons to their own specifications, peaking for major European matches.
Indeed, the collapse of the English performance in cross-border competition this season – no semi-finalists in the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup, let alone in the Heineken – is behind fresh moves by the red-rose fraternity to "level the playing field" by imposing a three-times-eight system of qualification: the leading eight clubs from each of the Aviva Premiership, the French Top 14 and the Pro12, irrespective of nationality in the latter case.
In other words, should the bottom four sides in the Pro 12 come exclusively from Scotland and Italy, the following season's Heineken Cup would be a four-nation tournament rather than a more geographically diverse six-nation affair.
While declining to comment on the perverse notion that the English club movement, in its present state of competitiveness, should have more qualifiers rather than fewer, Robinson was at pains to emphasise the fundamental importance of a pan-European format. "I don't want to get into the politics of this," he said, "but what seems obvious to me is the importance of the spread and reach of the Heineken Cup to its success. And let's remember that in terms of growth, it's probably the most successful tournament in world rugby. It's vital that it remains a truly European competition, because variety is at the heart of its beauty. There may be all sorts of ideas flying around about changes to the structure, but the one thing that must be protected is the tournament's spread.
"We all know the reasons why the game in Scotland is structured as it is. There isn't, and there cannot be at the present moment, a raft of professional teams, simply because there is no financial base on which to build such a system. What happens in the future – where the game in this country goes over the course of the next 20 years – remains to be seen. It may well come to pass that more teams are launched. But at the moment it's about operating within a sound business model, and that's what people in Scotland are trying to do as best they can."
Has the nature of the tournament changed since Robinson coached Bath to that famous victory over Brive, the reigning champions, in Bordeaux back in '98, thereby launching an English domination of the competition that would last until 2003? Has life grown easier for the Celts, in particular, as a consequence of the way their league rugby is packaged?
"All I know is this," Robinson replied: "the Heineken Cup was an incredibly difficult thing to win a decade and a half ago and it's an incredibly difficult thing to win now. It hasn't changed a bit. From a coaching point of view, and from a player's perspective too, it's still the club tournament that stretches you furthest and taxes you most.
"Easy? There's nothing easy about it, for anyone."
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