PERHAPS the most damning indictment of the Alan Solomons era at Edinburgh is the handling of winger Dougie Fife. When the South African coach arrived in the capital at the start of the 2013-14 season, Fife was a player on the rise and he went on to pick up the first of his six full Scotland caps later that season, but by the end of the 2015-16 campaign he was in serious danger of being washed-up at the grand old age of 25, after being deemed surplus to requirements at the club.
Fife was by no means the only player not to fit into Solomons’ very rigid view of how the game should be approached, but he was the starkest example. While Lee Jones and Alex Allan were able to resurrect their careers at Glasgow Warriors, and others such as Greig Laidlaw, Dave Denton, Tim Visser and the soon to return Matt Scott moved to England, Fife’s career withered on the vine.
The most shocking aspect of this is that the player’s value was clearly not lost on others within the Murrayfield machine, and he was handed a chance to salvage his career through the Scotland 7s squad – a programme which is surely aimed at developing emerging talent rather than resuscitating the careers of established internationals who have been thrown on the scrap heap before they have hit their prime.
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The end of the line for Solomons, but what now for Edinburgh?
Edinburgh during this period was not only underachieving as a club, it was actively undermining the player pathway to the national team. For all the reflected glory the men at the top of Scottish Rugby enjoy from the success in recent seasons of Glasgow Warriors, their neglect of Edinburgh during the same period is a huge blot on their record.
“To be honest, I don’t think I was enjoying my rugby as much. The way we were playing was just really quite boring at times for a winger and it was getting me down,” reflects Fife, when asked where it all went wrong during that period when his stock at Edinburgh plummeted through the floor.
“Some people just don’t fit into the coach’s mould and Solly [Solomons] lost interest in me it seemed. Other guys were coming through, like Damien [Hoyland], who was playing really well. Edinburgh had a team that never really got changed and, to be fair, the boys that were playing my position were doing really well and they didn’t need me at the time.”
“When, I got released to sevens it just felt like a new life almost. Kitty [Calum MacRae – the Scotland 7s squad coach at that time] was a big part of that. He really pushed me and said he wanted me to focus on what I was doing now and everything seemed to click again. We obviously did really well at some of the tournaments and I think it just sparked me up a lot. It got me back on my feet again and back to where I am.”
Scoring the winning try for Scotland 7s
Fife memorably scored the tournament clinching try in Scotland’s maiden World Rugby Sevens Series victory in London in May 2016 and he was in the team which retained that title the following year.
But he is now back at Edinburgh, after initially being invited along to train with the squad at the start of the season by new head coach Richard Cockerill before being offered and accepting a full-time contract in December which will run to the summer of 2020.
MacRae shifted from the sevens set-up to Edinburgh at the start of last summer, and it is fair to assume that the coach had some say in Fife, along with fellow 7s squad member James Johnstone, getting another shot at the fifteen aside version of the game.
“I’m not sure what the conversation was, whether Calum said to Richard to have a look at us or Richard just brought us in. But obviously being close to Kitty for a year, we know how he works and he’s a pretty full-on coach. He doesn’t give you much resting time. He’s rugby, rugby, rugby – 100 per cent of the day – so we know what he’s like. We knew he’d bring a lot to the club as well, which he has. I think he probably was a big factor in it.”
“I feel the way we’re playing now is a lot more exciting. They [the coaching team] are giving us a lot more freedom to play. The whole set-up feels a bit more professional as well. We’re in on Sundays, recovery, and everything’s done – everything’s improved training-wise and stuff.”
Fife has every reason to feel optimistic about the future. There is a feel-good factor about Edinburgh at the moment which is infectious and he has two years of security to focus on doing what he does best.
And while his season long sabbatical in the abbreviated game was not part of the career path he set off on, he clearly doesn’t view it as time wasted.
“It’s a pretty horrible situation on a sevens pitch, playing against Kiwis, Fijians and having 20 metres each side of you. Your defence improves, and your attacking ability,” he reflects. “I was playing centre as well so there was a lot of decision making and passing. It put a lot more pressure on my skills and I think that has helped me. Training was pretty high intensity.”
Fifteens might be the main focus again, but he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of representing the Scotland 7s team at the Commonwealth Games in April and at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in July.
“We’ve had a few anti-doping chats that you have to do to go to the Commonwealth Games – a big pool of us have done that and quite a lot of XVs guys have been told they’re in the running for it, so I don’t know how big that pool is or who’s in or what. I would love to do it, put it that way,” he says.
In the meantime, he is more than content with his lot at Edinburgh, and knows that he is going to have to be on top of his game to carry on getting match time.
Strength in depth for Edinburgh
The strength in depth the club has in the back three was underlined yesterday [Wednesday] when Blair Kinghorn, Duhan van der Merwe and Damien Hoyland all signed contract extensions. Kinghorn has signed on until the summer of 2021, van der Merwe until 2020 and Hoyland until 2019.
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