EDINBURGH’s abject PRO14 semi-final defeat by Ulster, in which they once again underperformed in a big game, will prove to be a “final turning point” in their quest for honours, Blair Kinghorn believes. The full-back knows there is no guarantee his team will bounce back immediately by beating Bordeaux Begles in their Challenge Cup quarter-final on Saturday, but is confident they have at last learned what they need to do in order to prevail in a major knock-out match.
On Wednesday, head coach Richard Cockerill led the squad in a lengthy and painfully forthright review of what went wrong last at Murrayfield against Ulster last Saturday, when they let slip a 19-7 lead to go down to a 22-19 defeat. The honest self-criticism on display in that review, along with the lessons learned from it, have convinced Kinghorn that in future the squad will be able to rise to the occasion in such matches.
“We’ve had Munster in the [PRO14] quarter-final and lost that, Cardiff in the Challenge Cup and lost that, Munster again [in the Champions Cup] and then Ulster,” the 23-year-old said. “So we’re getting ourselves into the positions and then not executing to get us to that next stage.
“But I have full confidence in the team that we have the ability to do this. It’s just a bit frustrating that we’re not, but I think you’ll see when we play Bordeaux that we’re ready to. I think the game against Ulster will be the final turning point, that everything will click and you’ll see us in action on the big stage.
“I think we’re turning a corner, personally. I think I speak for the majority of the rest of the team.
“I think if you were at the review on Wednesday, you would be like, ‘Right, we don’t want to be here again, we don’t want to be in this moment again where we’re getting shouted at and we’re hawking the same things that we’ve been through for the last four years’.
“I think everyone’s sick and tired of it. We’ve got to the point where . . . I just feel like we’ve turned a corner. We’ll see at training, but I feel like we know that in these big games it’s just different. Small things matter. Some things you can get away with – just say it was a normal league game, Ulster might not have chased that hard because they would have had a losing bonus point. We switched off maybe. Whereas in a big knockout game like that it’s all the little things that matter, and they add up.
Reviews of major losses, in which the whole squad have to undergo a detailed analysis of what went right or wrong, are a traditional way of learning and then moving on. There are also various points in the week leading up to a match when the players and coaches deal with the psychological side of the sport, in terms both of their own mental approach and that of the opposition. Even so, Kinghorn still believes that more could be done to help Edinburgh deal with the non-physical aspects of the sport.
“With the mental side of the game, the in-depth way we look at teams is quite big in terms of the psychological side of things, but after a big loss there’s not really that much in place in terms of Scottish rugby. A lot of teams have got psychologists, but the way we deal with it is the player group is so tight-knit at Edinburgh that you can bounce off the players. It’s something that probably needs to be looked at a little bit more but we’re so tight you can have these conversations with your pals and they can help you through.”
Asked if having a conversation with someone from entirely outside the squad might help, Kinghorn agreed that it could have a useful function by ensuring that friends, family and colleagues were not burdened with a player’s concerns every time he had share his sorrows following a big defeat. “Yeah, I think it’s something that teams can look at,” he continued. “High-performance sport is so demanding in different aspects, that a big loss can sit with you and affect your mood a lot.
“I would say that pressure rugby is one of the jobs that you can’t leave at work. If you have a bad day at training, if you have a bad review, if you have a bad game, lose a big game, it kind of sits with you all week on your shoulders. And I think being able to . . . . obviously you have your close friends and partners and all that to get it off your chest with, but you want to have someone that you can pass the burden on to, not necessarily pass on to someone that you care about.”
The ideal, of course, is that you do not need to have anyone – close friend, partner or psychologist – with whom to share those woes, because you win all your big games. Kinghorn knows well that Edinburgh are not yet in that position, and is equally aware of just how tough Saturday’s match will be against a team who had a healthy lead in France’s Top 14 when the season was cancelled.
Bur, while knowing there is no guarantee of victory, he appears convinced that the team are ready to assert themselves and put in the sort of big performance that eluded them against Ulster. “We could go out and play a stormer, execute our game plan, but on the day they might just be better. But I think that will still show development.
“But I have full belief that we’ll go there . . . If we play our best and execute everything we can, then I think we can . . . . To have the chance to bounce back in such a big and important game straight away is beneficial for us: it’ll help us as a team and as a club and it’ll help us stand up to playing in more of these big games.”