15 for 10: Edinburgh - an all-decade XV
From a mesmeric but flaky group that leaked tries like a sieve to a turgid, kick-and-maul unit that barely scored any, and now to Richard Cockerill and his wonderful rejuvenation of a foundering club, in the past decade Edinburgh have shifted from extreme to extreme and back again.
They began 2010 off the back of their most successful domestic season, when Andy Robinson led them to second place in the old Celtic League in the days before play-offs, five berths and 18 points above Glasgow.
Michael Bradley got them to a Heineken Cup semi-final in 2012, playing some of the most spellbinding rugby in Europe while delivering flaky, hapless stuff in the league and finishing eleventh. Alan Solomons’ methodical but often turgid blueprint yielded a rake of southern hemisphere recruits and Challenge Cup final but some dour fare along the way.
Then Cockerill fetched up, revamped the mindset and the form of his players and drove Edinburgh to a PRO14 quarter-final against Munster they should have won in 2018. There was another hard-luck story against the same opposition, this time in the Champions Cup last eight, a year later.
Selecting the premier Edinburgh XV of the decade throws up a number of exceedingly tough decisions and some areas where the competition is altogether paltrier.
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There are players who emptied themselves for the jersey and earned little recognition outside of the dressing room who don’t make this team. There are those as well whose brilliance was stark but fleeting in the context of the decade.
These men below were chosen not just for their ability, but for the influence of their contributions and the success they helped to deliver. Some are nailed-on starters, others more marginal choices. Plenty will disagree, but that’s all part of the fun. Here goes…
15. Blair Kinghorn
Although he only turns 23 this month, Kinghorn has racked up over 80 first-team appearances and 22 tries. With Chris Paterson in his twilight days at the start of the decade and despite Tom Brown’s sustained and unstintingly committed service to Edinburgh, Kinghorn is the stand-out candidate.
The 6ft 5in back has speed, poise and a mighty boot. He can gallop through spaces with those long, loping strides, finish ruthlessly or pick an offload out the back door to a speeding team-mate. His tackling needs work, but he is a box-office player.
14. Duhan van der Merwe
The South African may have spent only two-and-a-half years at the club, but his impact has been enormous. Van der Merwe is a giant, deadly presence on the wing, a juggernaut who can shift his 106kgs beef at frightening pace, blasting through defenders like a grizzly bear swatting aside bluebottles.
Already this season, he has made more metres and clean breaks and beaten more defenders than anyone else in the PRO14.
A brilliant pick-up from the fringes of the Montpellier squad, van der Merwe averages better than a try every other game, scoring 27 in 52 matches. If he signs a new contract – and that is a serious priority for Edinburgh – he will become eligible for Scotland in the summer, and Test rugby will surely follow.
Darcy Graham, the little rampaging Borderer, runs him very close after a blistering assimilation to the professional ranks. Lee Jones was a dynamic foil to Tim Visser in 2012, while Damien Hoyland remains a fine finisher.
13. Nick De Luca
De Luca suffered some obscene public beatings for his Scotland performances, the scapegoat of a clunky backline, but you always sensed he was more at ease in an Edinburgh jersey.
The centre had probably the crispest pass in Scottish rugby, made searing line breaks and laid on a glut of tries for the men outside him, particularly Visser. Although he did much of his best work at twelve, partnered with the outstanding Ben Cairns in the previous decade, he was equally adept at 13 and formed a superb pairing with Matt Scott in the 2012 vintage.
De Luca could be a thorny character – his relationship with Solomons was virtually non-existent by the time he left – unafraid to speak his mind, but frankly Edinburgh have had too few like him.
12. Matt Scott
Across two spells at the club, Scott has proven a magnificent centre, direct and clever with the ball, solid without it. He has always provided a classy touch at twelve through his play-making, ability to pick wounding running lines and sear through them, and the soft hands to put his pals away.
Concussion blighted the start of his second stint at Edinburgh, but he is back this season in glorious form and a return to the Scotland set-up cannot be far away.
Chris Dean pushes him close.
11. Tim Visser
One of the best signings either Scottish team has made in the professional era. Visser was lethal, a 6ft 4in rapier who finished atop the league try-scoring charts four seasons on the spin. His haul of 14 in 2010/11 set a competition record that has yet to be surpassed.
He remains Edinburgh’s leading try-scorer with 68 in 131 matches – a brilliant return – and was still a dangerous presence even when the game plan left him hoofing it after box kicks far more often than getting hands on ball and space in which to canter.
10. Jaco van der Walt
Sadly, there is a real paucity of high-calibre contenders for the fly-half berth. Phil Godman produced most of his best work in the previous decade. Greig Tonks, Phil Burleigh and Jason Tovey all had encouraging spells. A series of Duncan Weir salvos helped propel Edinburgh towards their maiden PRO14 play-off. Greig Laidlaw was arguably the most influential man in both half-back positions over the course of the past ten years.
Van der Walt shades it for his attacking prowess and game management since joining in late 2017. He helped spark Edinburgh’s evolving backline under Cockerill and was a crucial component of the team that made last term’s Champions Cup quarter-finals, starting all but one game. He can be a little flaky, his goal-kicking can waver at times, but he ended last season with the PRO14 golden boot. At last, Edinburgh have a pivot with riveting flair and a pragmatic streak.
9. Greig Laidlaw
In the early throes of the decade, Laidlaw burnished his reputation as Scotland’s coming half-back, a belligerent little leader with a fiercely competitive edge. He had – and still has – a brilliant rugby brain that often gets forgotten when people leap to criticise his speed of play and crispness of pass.
He gave Edinburgh a play-making fulcrum and a deadly goal-kicking option, finishing his seven-year spell in 2014 with 606 points from 139 matches. Laidlaw played a fair bit of rugby at ten, but his prime stuff was played at scrum-half. He nailed so many pressure shots – remember the conversion that decided a crazy 48-47 win over Racing Metro (as they were called then) or the last-gasp penalty that killed Toulouse in the 2012 quarter-finals?
Laidlaw gets in ahead of the great Mike Blair and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, who was named PRO12 breakthrough player of the season in 2015 but rather lost his way after the World Cup later that year.
Greig Laidlaw's retirement from Test rugby has generated much response, with Stuart Hogg among those paying tribute https://t.co/In57VVJF7v
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 19, 2019
1. Allan Jacobsen
It is desperately tough to do without Alasdair Dickinson, an immense presence from 2013 to 16, but it is even more unfathomable to omit ‘Chunk’ when weighing up each behemoth’s contribution to Edinburgh.
To look at Jacobsen and his bulging paunch, you would never place him as an international athlete, nor would you fancy him to be a particularly handy prop in open prairie. How wrong you would be.
Jacobsen married his excellent bread-and-butter set-piece heft with deft handling and carrying that belied his physique. He is Edinburgh’s record appearance holder, and although he retired in 2013, he was still – literally – a huge part of the semi-final team a year earlier.
The wonderfully mobile Allan Dell also deserves a shout.
2. Stuart McInally
Leaving out Ross Ford, Scotland’s ultimate stalwart, is a brutal call. Few were as dedicated to his craft or his club, fronting up tirelessly through some of the grimmest days. The great shame is that he didn’t deliver his best, most snarling, most confrontational rugby more consistently.
For his work firstly as a barnstorming back row, then in becoming Scotland’s premier hooker, the captain that took Edinburgh to the PRO14 play-offs and top of a Champions Cup pool featuring Montpellier, Toulon and Newcastle, McInally edges it.
Converting to the front row at 23 meant hours of solo toil, bleak days and a loan spell in the English Championship. He came through it all, losing none of his ball-carrying dynamism. Under Cockerill, he emerged as one of the top performing hookers in Europe and a leader to boot. McInally is Edinburgh’s transformation in microcosm.
3. WP Nel
The squat South African has the look of a truck driver who has just finished an arduous jaunt at the wheel, hopped out of his cab, pulled on his boots and headband and trundled on to the pitch to bash some skulls before he hits the tarmac again.
In his early seasons at Edinburgh, Nel was not only a magnificent scrummager but a very handy presence around the paddock. From his arrival in 2012 to his Scotland qualification three years later, he scored 14 tries. He was also incredibly durable across this period, playing in 83 of the club’s 85 matches. The Dickinson-Ford-Nel front row became the cornerstone of the Edinburgh and Scotland packs.
His powers may be waning a little now at almost 34 years old, but he is still trucking along very nicely. Nel recovered from a serious neck injury in late 2016 to regain his place with club and country and play at a second World Cup.
Congratulations to Bill Mata who has been nominated for 2019 EPCR European Player of the Year! ???
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) January 24, 2019
4. Ben Toolis
A shaggy-haired Australian, Toolis was signed six-and-a-half years ago and became an impressive regular in the Edinburgh boiler house the following season. Athletic and mobile, he did some of his top work alongside enforcer Anton Bresler on the run to the 2015 Challenge Cup final and continually stood up and played well through the malaise of the 2016/17 season. Tooils is a real lineout asset and gets through a mountain of work in open field, carrying with power, and hitting a ton of rucks.
5. Grant Gilchrist
The long-standing partner to Toolis, Gilchrist has had some brilliant years and some where injury and poor form have greatly diminished his impact.
He was fabulous in the early part of the decade, a huge, uncompromising lock in the team of 2012. Gilchrist also had tidy hands, a clever game and leadership that Vern Cotter soon identified. The gruff Kiwi made him Scotland captain in 2014 but Gilchrist promptly broke his forearm and missed a swathe of rugby.
His comeback from such a heinous blow took time. There was a gloomy period where, like most of the squad, his form fell off a cliff until Cockerill arrived, told him exactly what he thought of his play, and got him firing back to his best again. For the past two seasons, he has been outstanding.
Bresler, Sean Cox, who partnered Gilchrist in 2012, and Fraser McKenzie are also strong contenders.
‘We need to have another 20, 30 players that are playing at a high level’
– @15GavinHastings tells @heagneyl what is needed to help @Scotlandteam, his pride in @adamhastings96 and @GlasgowWarriors, and his support for old pals @DoddieWeir5 and Tom Smithhttps://t.co/Z2bYF21t2M
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 14, 2019
6. Dave Denton
For all that Edinburgh festered in the rugby doldrums for chunks of the decade, they have never wanted for quality back rows. Jamie Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury head a legion of brilliant home-grown talent who will drive Scotland into the next World Cup.
Mike Coman deserves recognition for leading the club with distinction through some of its dark days. John Barclay has only played nine Edinburgh matches, but his class is obvious.
Denton, a colossal wrecking ball and better footballer than many give him credit for, earns his place in an all-decade XV. He was devastating on the charge, thunderous in the tackle and relentless in his pursuit of work.
Scotland have not cultivated enough monster carriers in his mould. A vital component of the 2012 team and much more besides, the debilitating effects of brain injury forced him into premature retirement last year.
David Denton held nothing back in a fascinating Rugby Journal interview that addressed the concussion which ended his career https://t.co/JA39NrznaV
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 12, 2019
7. Hamish Watson
The toughest call of the lot. Ross Rennie was a world-class flanker – 20 Scotland caps is a painfully meagre reflection of his greatness. What might he have achieved were it not for the relentless injuries that besieged his body?
It is a travesty, too, that stalwart fetcher Roddy Grant was never given a chance at international level, even more so at a time when caps were dished out so freely. John Hardie was a real destroyer, although his spell at Edinburgh was marred by allegations of cocaine use.
Watson squeezes in for his sustained excellence, maturing into one of the finest open-sides in European rugby with fizzing ball-carries, limpet-like jackaling and a freakish ability to dynamite much heavier men as though his hand-offs were powered by hydraulic pistons.
It is all the more impressive that he was so brilliant, so often in a team floundering badly in the aftermath of Solomons’ exit. His rise, alongside that of the club, has continued apace since.
8. Viliame Mata
Another fiendishly difficult selection. Netani Talei was the swaggering fulcrum of that 2012 side, Nasi Manu brought ballast and leadership, and Cornell du Preez was Edinburgh’s most influential player before virtually snapping his leg in two.
Mata, though, has to start. Last season, he was probably the form number eight in world rugby, absolutely critical to Edinburgh’s game plan and soaring ascent under Cockerill.
His offloads are stunning, but always well-judged. His basic skills are extremely polished. He makes yards where others would get smashed and his ball-carrying statistics are frequently ridiculous.
Cockerill joked last year that he’d sell one of his children’s kidneys to keep Mata at Edinburgh. Fortunately, a fat new deal and an invigorating environment did the trick.
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