EDINBURGH defence coach Calum MacRae believes that the capital outfit will draw confidence from the progress they made across the course of the whole 2019-20 season rather than fixate on what went wrong in their final two matches, when they threw away a commanding lead to Ulster in their PRO14 play-off semi-final and then left themselves too much to do after a haphazard start against Bordeaux-Begles in their European Challenge Cup quarter-final.
Those two results left supporters and pundits questioning whether Richard Cockerill’s men lack the mental fortitude to be genuine contenders for silverware, but MacRae wants the players to focus on the positives as they prepare to get back on the horse in their 2020-21 PRO14 season opener against Ospreys next weekend.
“When you face a disappointment, and we’ve had two in three weeks with Ulster and Bordeaux, there tends to be a fixation on it,” he said. “But I think it’s really important to reflect on the season more as a whole rather than just those two games.
“I think there is clearly steady progress. We’re getting to play-offs consistently now, and I think our game is evolving. Particularly from year one when we came in [as a new coaching team in 2017-18], I see a real evolution: firstly in making us hard to beat, and then our try-scoring record speaks for itself.
“I think we’ve got a real balance to our game, certainly more this season. Part of being able to win the big games is to adapt your game, and I think we are doing that so that we are harder to play against.
“In my previous role with the Scotland 7s squad we had a season in which we missed out on competitions by the skin of our teeth. It was hugely frustrating, but I knew deep down we were very, very close to turning the corner [Scotland went on to win the London leg of the World Series in 2016 and 2017 under MacRae’s tutelage]. I’ve got the same feeling as I did with the Sevens boys. There is disappointment, but I fully believe that we’re not far away.”
MacRae added that he drew particular comfort from the way an understrength Edinburgh team battled back from 14-0 down with just ten minutes played to be breathing down Bordeaux’s neck during the final ten minutes of their Challenge Cup quarter-final match last weekend, before a last minute Ben Botica penalty eased the hosts to a 23-14 win.
“Yes, we came up short, and we had a really poor start to the game, but I was really proud of the way we fought back against arguably the top team in France – I thought our game management was spot on,” he reasoned.
“It shows the resolve of the team. There are a number of teams who would have gone there, leaked a couple of early tries, and then maybe just downed tools.
“If we’d been in that scenario in that sort of game during our first year at the club, would we have shown that same sort of resolve and maturity? I’m not so sure we would.
“To be able to park those early errors and stick to the game-plan showed a huge amount of maturity. We showed that we’re building a level of resilience. The players were able to sort things out on the pitch.
“‘We had opportunities to push it right to the line and it really could have been game-on in those closing stages. It’s important to bank that good stuff.”
Giving youth its head
Edinburgh are likely to lose the spine of their team for large chunks of the coming season, during the extended, seven-week Autumn Test window, and then again for a similar period of time during the Six Nations. With a recruitment freeze in place, the strength in depth of the squad is going to be seriously tested, but MacRae says he has faith in some of the youngsters who will need to take on leadership roles while the senior men are away.
“The poster boy for that at Edinburgh just now would probably be Luke Crosbie, who was absolutely outstanding for us last season during the international periods and during the World Cup,” he said. “It’s guys like Luke who we will be looking to in terms of really kicking on and drawing on their experience from last season.
“Charlie Shiel would also be another one and we’ve seen recently what he’s capable of. He is a very dangerous, attacking nine. He’s scored some outstanding tries, which have often been to finish teams off in the last 20-25 minutes of games.
“When guys like Charlie and Luke get their opportunities, it’s really important that they take them.
“Also George Taylor, who has been in there for a couple of seasons now and he’s turned a few heads with his performances,” MacRae added, before highlighting that players released back to the club during the international window can also play an important role.
“When we got the results last season during the international windows, there were factors such as Grant Gilchrist coming back: he gave absolutely everything and was outstanding in how he conducted himself. He was as hungry as anyone playing for the shirt.”
Living up to expectations
Having had two weeks to lick their wounds following their back-to-back knock-out disappointments, Edinburgh will be desperate to start the new season with a bang – an MacRae says that his team must embrace the ‘favourites’ tag against Ospreys next Saturday night.
“The league table doesn’t lie – we were top of the Conference because we consistently performed,” he said. “The Ospreys are going through a bit of change and there is a rebuild going on there at the moment, with Toby Booth coming in. They’ve also got a new attack coach in Brock James. But their DNA as a team will remain the same, they’ll want to play an open game. We’re well aware of the challenges they’ll pose to our defence.
“There’s no doubting the quality they have in their squad. You only have to look at the number of internationals and Lions they have in their ranks to know that you have to pitch up and be on your game to give yourself a chance against them.”