SATURDAY will bring up his 150th Edinburgh appearance during a nine year spell which has seen the team’s fortunes swing from ‘nearly-men’ to ‘no-hopers’ and back again. Had it not been for some awful luck with injury between 2014 and 2016, he would have managed a whole lot more appearances for the capital outfit, and had factors largely out-with his control conspired differently then he might well have ended up a fixture in the engine-room at European giants Toulon (who were at the height of their powers when chasing the Scotsman’s signature back in 2016).
But Grant Gilchrist was in no mood to dwell on what might have been when he spoke to the press earlier this week. With a PRO14 play-off semi-final clash against Ulster looming over the horizon this weekend [kick-off 7.35pm on Saturday], the focus was absolutely on the road ahead and helping his team forge their own piece of immortality by winning Edinburgh’s first piece of meaningful silverware of the professional era.
You get the distinct impression that any success the team does manage this season will be all the more keenly appreciated for the long path it has taken to get there.
“I think it’s pretty clear how much I love playing for Edinburgh and how much the club means to me,” says the 30-year-old former Scotland and club captain. “I remember how proud I was when I played my first game and every game since I’ve felt the same way. I have a deep connection with the club and if I could I’d love to win something.
“I feel we’ve got to a point where we can do that and now it’s about ‘can you perform in these one-off games?’ It’s a separate thing, if you’re good enough to make a play-off then you’re a bloody good team and I know we are, but can we be the best Edinburgh team? That’s about meeting other good teams and winning one-off games. We haven’t been able to do that yet, we weren’t a million miles away in both quarter-finals [against Munster in the 2017-18 PRO14 play-offs and Munster again in the 2018-19 Heineken Champions Cup], but I think the perception has been that we’ve taken lots of steps forward [since then].
“We’re not plucky losers, it’s time to step up. That’s what excites me and the rest of the boys, you do all this preparation to play in these big games, and when you get into them you’ve got to win them. Winning silverware is something I want from my career and why not this year when we’re two games away?
“It doesn’t just happen overnight – you can’t just look at the Irish provinces and say ‘that’s where we want to be’ – you have to look at how you become that, and that’s about how we prepare and how we build consistency in performance. We have to understand the process of how we get there by controlling what we do and making sure we keep getting better. I believe we can have sustained success at this club and one day have that history behind us so that teams will have that feeling going into games against us that Edinburgh know how to win these big games.
“We’re trying to forge our own history. What a great opportunity to be the first Edinburgh team to win silverware – it is an opportunity like no other. That’s exciting and that’s what gets you up in the morning.”
Change of mindset
There is no doubt that the catalyst for Edinburgh’s most recent spike in standards was the arrival of Richard Cockerill as head coach just over three years ago.
“We worked hard before and wanted to do well, but there’s a difference between wanting to do well and doing the right things day in, day out and I think we probably didn’t work hard enough, says Gilchrist. “Cockers has opened our eyes to a different level – he’s taken us to a different level in training. That’s the biggest difference for me – it wasn’t a lack of ambition.
“We’ve certainly strengthened our squad, we’ve got the strongest squad now that we’ve had in my time at the club and that obviously helps – we’ve recruited well and young guys have come through and done well – but the level of our training has gone up and that’s what makes the difference on a Saturday.
“I think he’s always going to pick players and create a culture that sits with him,” he adds. “There are non-negotiables in the way you train, behave and prepare for games and I think that’s in his own image, but it’s in an image that he also knows has worked for him in the past. That experience of winning as a coach and a player, he knows what it takes and that’s why he wants players to take on those characteristics.”
Gilchrist and Ulster winger Craig Gilroy are likely to be the only players on the park this weekend who were involved when the two sides met at the semi-final stage of the Heineken Cup back in 2012. That three-point defeat will certainly spur the Edinburgh man on, but he believes a more relevant experience for the group was last year’s Heineken Cup loss to Munster.
“We coughed up some silly penalties in that last ten minutes which led to us going from up by two or three points to conceding a penalty mid-pitch, getting pushed back into our 22 and Munster scoring,” he grimaces. “So, we are looking at how we can control that mid-pitch area, what decisions we take individually and how we control discipline. We might look to kick and force teams back and make them go from deep.
“On that occasion, I think we actually had a penalty advantage and then gave away a silly penalty, which is an individual thing, but can apply to the team mentality which requires all our discipline to be top level in big games.
“One little slip in discipline – like making a mistake, failing to stick to the system, or giving away a penalty – these moments can change games, as we saw in the Munster game, when we went from being petty confident that we can see out the game to giving away one penalty and all of a sudden being under pump.
“There was a lot of things before that in the game where if we had taken our chances we would have been further ahead, and we’ve looked at that as well. When we get chances on Saturday, we need to turn them into points, and that’s the key to these games when you expect it to be tight and physical. There never is much in these big games, so the small things matter, and that’s what we are concentrating on this week.”