Planet Rugby

SA blueprint to Edinburgh's gain

11th January 2014 22:10


Roddy Grant 2 Edinburgh 2012

In-form: Roddy Grant

Head coach Alan Solomons' controversial recruitment-driven South African strategy is beginning to benefit Edinburgh's rugby.

Much has been made of Edinburgh's growing South African influence. Solomons has recruited heavily from his former side, Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings, and elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere - a policy that has sat ill with many.

Edinburgh has a duty as one of Scotland's two pro-teams to produce home-grown (or at least Scottish qualified) players for the national team. Some argue the glut of foreign imports has eroded this purpose, and tainted the club's identity.

Certainly, when the signings kept coming - often similar players best suited to similar positions - there was cause for concern that Solomons was falling into a trap that has ensnared him in the past; rapidly packing a squad with his trusted countrymen does not always pay off. Just ask fans of Northampton Saints.

But Solomons' Edinburgh are on the up. The fact that their steady improvement has centred around a very South African approach to the game is no coincidence.

Frankly, this team's style of play would not look out of place on the shores of Cape Town, nor the Highveld of Pretoria. Gone is the "Edinburgh way" of old; best described as a mix of sublime and suicidal high-risk rugby, punctuated by gung-ho offloading and porous defence.

Now, the capital outfit are more controlled; more measured in their approach. It's pragmatic gameplay built upon the very South African principle of a bruising pack filled with powerful, bludgeoning ball-carriers. The likes of Cornell du Preez and Dave Denton thrive on this kind of rugby, and it is little wonder they have been among Edinburgh's stand-out performers since Solomons took charge.

Their defence, too, is improving. Saturday's 27-16 trouncing of Perpignan epitomised perfectly the way a side renowned for haemorrhaging tries has upped its game without the ball. The aggressive line speed and intensity in the tackle characterise South African rugby. For this, defence coach Omar Mouneimne deserves great credit; and the players too, for buying into the boss's methodology. So much so, that their performances have thrown up a series of hitherto unlikely Scotland contenders.

Six months ago, it would have been near-unthinkable that Greig Tonks (at either full-back or fly-half), Jack Cuthbert and Roddy Grant would be in contention for a Six Nations matchday 23; but now all three are very much in the frame for selection - or at least should be.

Tonks' switch from full-back to fly-half came about primarily through injuries in the Edinburgh squad, but the 24-year-old has revelled in his new role. There is much admiration for his booming left boot, but Tonks has shown enough awareness, distribution and running threat to suggest he should be a genuine candidate for involvement in Scott Johnson's pivot plans.

His defending of first-up tackles remains the greatest question mark, and though it would be churlish to tout him too bullishly for a Test start just yet, few of Johnson's other options at ten are performing so consummately on a consistent basis.

Despite being recognised as the form man in his position, Cuthbert will likely fall short in his battle for the number fifteen jersey given he's up against two of Scottish rugby's brightest talents in Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland.

He's unconventional, sure, with his size and lugubrious running style worthy of a metaphor conjured by the late, great Bill McLaren; and he lacks the raw pace and incisiveness of the aforementioned duo. But Cuthbert's strong carrying and repeated gainline successes were exactly what Scotland missed in November.

Grant, meanwhile, must be approaching the top of the list entitled "best players never to win a Scotland cap". Where before his path to a Test career was blocked by a queue of bigger and better flankers, Grant is now in the form of his life, and would add another much-vaunted and much-missed dimension to Scotland's recent rugby exploits; a genuine openside.

Johnson's refusal to hand Chris Fusaro his debut in November suggests Grant is set for more time as an international onlooker; but the absence of either's relentless tenacity, knee-high body position and "fetching" capabilities was telling against Australia three months ago.

So, while the Edinburgh errors of old have yet to be fully flushed from the system - take a look at the tries conceded against Perpignan or Glasgow Warriors on Boxing Day - there is valid cause for optimism.

Certainly, it's refreshing to see a team working so hard for one another after the listless final days of Michael Bradley's reign in charge. Nearly six months in, Solomons' South African revolution is gathering momentum; next season will see the true measure of its success.

By Jamie Lyall

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