GRANT GILCHRIST was just a 21-year-old whippersnapper in his first year as a full-time player in the Edinburgh squad during the 2011-12 season, when he played in evert match as the capital outfit mounted an improbable march under Irishman Michael Bradley to the semi-final stage of the European Heineken Cup [as it was then known].
While that remains a fond memory for the second-row, it is counter-balanced by the knowledge that the team could not sustain their cup form in the weekly grind of league matches, finishing that season second bottom of the PRO12 table with just six wins and a draw from 22 outings, and ahead only of lowly – now defunct – Italian minnows Aironi.
Seven years down the line, and after an absence from Europe’s top competition of four seasons, Edinburgh are back in the big time, and at the halfway point of the pool section they are in with a great chance of progressing to the knock-out stages once again. They currently sit top of the table, three points ahead of Newcastle Falcons, who they play on Sunday.
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But the pressure which recent progress has put on the squad was evident during November when head coach Richard Cockerill had to scrape together a team using academy prospects and players pulled in on short-term loans in an effort to keep enough bodies fit and fresh for the challenges which lay ahead.
Edinburgh are not fighting a battle on two fronts, it is on three fronts, with squad members being pulled between European, Guinness PRO14 and international commitments. However, Gilchrist believes the squad is much better equipped for this challenge than it was back in 2011-12.
“I think we definitely have a lot more strength across the board than we did back then when we probably had a strong 23 and then there was not a lot of change across the whole competition,” he reflected. “It was almost the same XV week-on-week.
“You can see there is a depth in our squad [now] though we were hampered a bit by injuries in key positions during the international period. With everyone fit we definitely have a stronger squad and we can use that to change guys in and out to be effective.
“My memory [of 2011-12] is not that good, to be honest,” he continued. “It was my first season with Edinburgh and I was just delighted to be playing and be involved.
“It was a whirlwind, you put yourself in a position and all of a sudden, not too dissimilar to now, you get yourself in a good position in the first few games and the games that follow start to become really, really exciting.”
A step back into the unknown
Nobody was really sure how Edinburgh would fair in the Champions Cup this season after their time away, and they were served up a baptism of fire in their first outing away to Montpellier.
Edinburgh came up short, but took a losing bonus point out of the game – plus a bucket-load of confidence.
“We were just excited to be playing there and really challenging ourselves to see where we got to,” said Gilchrist. “We didn’t know how it would go – that is what the Montpellier game felt like – there was a nervous energy around the squad about how we would cope. We had played in the Challenge Cup for a good few years and were not sure how well equipped we were to handle it.
“Then we came so close and though we did not take the full points that we could have if we had been a bit more accurate, the belief we got from that [was huge].
“We had gone to Montpellier, renowned as one of the hardest places in Europe to go and win, handled ourselves really well, and felt disappointed – gutted – that we had not got a win.
“From that point it started to shift from ‘let’s see where we are at’ to ‘we’re in this to fight so let’s go out and play our best knowing that if we do play our best we can win these games’.
“For us being back at the top table was always the goal. The first two weekends, there was a real buzz about the squad anyway but that has gone up.
“You only have to look at the table and see what an opportunity lies there. It is now in our hands, we understand that. I have been here for whatever it is – eight years – and this is our only chance to get there again since the last time.
“We were poor in Europe, certainly in the Champions Cup, since then. These opportunities don’t come along every year, when they do, you really want to savour it and make sure you put your best foot forward. It adds to the excitement in the squad to go out there on Sunday and see if we can get the win to put ourselves in a great position.”