As a kid growing up in Cape Town, Edinburgh was always on Nic Groom’s bucket list – its beauty, its history, its quaint, cobbled streets and closes weaving a mesh in the shadow of the castle.
The fire-eaters and human statues and bagpipe players that pack the city every summer, the thronging festival-goers and the explosion of colour and culture. All of it transfixed him.
Not only will Edinburgh soon be his home and the place he plays his rugby, but Scotland’s capital will also be where the little scrum-half and wife Erin start their family.
“We’re expecting our first child in October, a baby boy,” explained Groom, who is due to fly out on July 15. “You never know, he could be in a kilt one day. It’s going to be mad, and we’re moving on top of everything.
“I’ve wanted to go to the Edinburgh Fringe for years since school, so it’s going to be quite surreal having it on my doorstep.
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“I enjoy comedy, I love live music… I really appreciate the arts. I’ve got a lot of time for those street performers, someone banging out covers singing their heart out. That’s really cool to watch. I dabble in the guitar, but very much self-taught. It probably won’t leave my house… and I hear Edinburgh’s a really good place to bring up children.”
In one of the worst-kept secrets in Scottish rugby’s long history of leakiness, Groom will soon rekindle his love for northern hemisphere rugby and all the tumult that goes along with it. He actually agreed what is initially a two-year contract, with the option of an additional season, many months ago.
Richard Cockerill, the Edinburgh head coach, told reporters in April he’d signed “a senior nine”. But Groom’s soon-to-be-former franchise, the Lions of Johannesburg, wanted the deal kept quiet until June 27 for fear of further disrupting a team that has had its troubles.
Welcome to the capital, Nic! ???
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) June 27, 2019
“There was a bit of confusion as to when I could leave,” explained Groom. “With the baby and stuff, that was quite stressful because Erin can’t fly any later than September.
“It was hard to leave because I felt like I invested a lot in the place in the short time I was there. But they understood my reasons for going, where I’m at in my career and what I still want to achieve in the game.”
Two months ago, with the Lions on tour New Zealand, their coach Swys de Bruin abruptly vanished on the eve of a match, his sudden exit later explained as the result of the sheer strain the job had taken on him.
2/2. Catch me in real life, I'm much more interesting, I promise. Take it easy ..
— nic groom (@nicgroom) March 20, 2015
The same week, defence coach Joey Mongalo was found guilty in Australia of indecent assault. Later in the season, play-maker Elton Jantjies was dropped for breaching team protocol, and their captain and totem Warren Whiteley managed only four appearances amid a hopelessly injury-wrecked campaign.
The Lions, beaten finalists three years running, finished ninth. “In the coach’s defence, it takes balls to do what he did,” said Groom. “We’ve been challenged massively as a group. The team has really lost a bit of an edge – some real key guys who were very influential have left some gaps that are busy being filled.
“As a player, it was frustrating at times that we just couldn’t get it right; we struggled to get over the line. We tried a few things; some worked and some didn’t. But if I’m a bit more philosophical, rugby works in cycles sometimes.
“As a group, we were maybe in the process of finding new ways to win and new ways to play. They’re an extremely innovative group, not scared to experiment, and yeah, we didn’t get as far as we’d hoped, but I think going forward, they’re in a good place.”
At 29, now is a good time to leave. Groom’s infatuation with European rugby is palpable. It was stoked at Northampton Saints, as bruising as much of his two years at Franklin’s Gardens turned out to be.
By the end of his second season in April 2018, Saints were a sorry lot, a pale shadow of the storied old giant of English rugby he had joined. The ending was bitter, but what he experienced in England left him thirsting for more northern hemisphere rugby.
There is more pressure than in Super Rugby, he suggests, more at stake and more fervour frothing in the stands. “As a product, it’s probably much more attractive than Super Rugby. There’s literally something on the line every game. That was something that I found to be very challenging at first, but something I actually miss.
“And that brings some really big plays that can swing a game and in some instances change a whole campaign. That, along with the real passion for the game, the stadiums, how it’s followed and supported, to be a player in that environment is really exciting.”
This yearning for Europe speaks to a wider malaise across the old SANZAAR nations, the festering disinterest in Super Rugby’s failed format and the northwards flitting of some of its biggest names.
South Africa alone will haemorrhage a flood of talent this autumn. Handre Pollard, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Coenie Oosthuizen, Stephan Lewies and Groom himself are among the heaviest hitters bound for Europe. More still, including several front-line Springboks, will take up eye-watering short-term contracts in Japan.
“It seems to me that the best players in the world are playing in Europe so immediately, things are somewhat diluted in Super Rugby,” reckoned Groom.
“Not to take a stab at Super Rugby, but possibly just a lack of innovation around keeping it exciting has taken its toll and people are leaving. The lifespan of a rugby player also puts a lot of pressure on people to go where it’s exciting or where they can make a proper future.
“It just seems like it is game after game, it’s hard to follow as a spectator. As a player, teams are just ebbing and flowing, things become far too familiar. To me, it seems like everyone in Super Rugby has got one eye on what’s going on in Europe.”
South Africa, of course, has neither the money nor the competitions to keep all of its galacticos and it has acknowledged as much by removing the 30-cap threshold for overseas-based players to win Springboks selection.
“With the exchange rate, in a lot of instances SARU are going to a gunfight with a knife,” continued Groom. “I would think they need to somehow merge with the northern hemisphere and streamline the whole competition. That’s the only way, in my opinion.
“It’s about looking after the players too. Giving them that opportunity would possibly keep some – the fact they could play around Europe, the doors would open to something they have never had.
“From a South African perspective, I guess it is concerning that your best players aren’t in the country, but I always say, if your son was in that position, what would you want him to do? And I don’t think you can blame them.
“I’m more concerned that one day when I look back on my career, I have some great friends from all over the world, incredible memories, and a taste of rugby in different countries. Personally, that would be a crime to miss out on.”
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— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) June 15, 2019
And so to Edinburgh, and a club reborn under Cockerill. In 2017, the bull-headed former hooker inherited a desolate place, a team of talented but weak-willed underperformers and a disaffected support.
He gave them a fitter, meaner, snarling team the city could get behind, a team underpinned by Scots. They got to the Guinness PRO14 quarter-finals and should have gone further. The place was transformed.
But last year, Edinburgh fell short. Not enough ruthlessness, too much inconsistency. They were brilliant in Europe but flaky in the PRO14, and they paid for it. It’s the Challenge Cup this season.
The brutal truth, a truth Cockerill is wont to stress, is that Edinburgh are not yet good enough or savvy enough to get away with off days. There’s a serious project in the offing here and Groom is enthused by the part he can play in it.
“I’ve been part of some really successful, established teams, so it’s going to be exciting to join a team that is maybe just scratching the surface of how far they can go. It just seems like there’s a lot of promise in the place, a lot of ambition. You want to be joining a place like that.
“You kind of get the sense it’s got a lot more to do with rugby, which is cool. There’s an opportunity to be part of something a lot bigger than rugby.”
“My biggest strength is the ability to make good decisions in games,” he said. “I’m an experienced scrum-half and I back myself to make big calls and make sure the guys around me are put in the right positions, and able to really express themselves.
“Speed of ball is something that I’ve really worked on. I love running with the ball, I love speeding the game up.
“The thing I miss about the northern hemisphere is that as a scrum-half, there’s a lot of responsibility on you, not only from an attacking perspective but defensively, relieving pressure, applying pressure. A huge responsibility compared to the southern hemisphere. That is something I really enjoy.”
Responsibility will come and in spades. On the pitch, Cockerill will make sure of that. And off it, so too, no doubt, will Baby Groom.
WATCH: Jim Hamilton explores South Africa in episode three of the RugbyPass Rugby Explorer series
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