ALTHOUGH Nic Groom captained Edinburgh in their second and final pre-season friendly last week, the scrum-half is as yet unsure whether he will be given the role during the early stages of the PRO14 campaign. What is certain, however, is that, whoever is officially the skipper when the likes of Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist are away on World Cup duty, Groom will have a key leadership role to play.
The 29-year-old, who joined from the Lions in June, is a composed and intelligent operator with substantial experience not only of rugby in his native South Africa, but also in England, where he spent two seasons with Northampton. He is likely to have a close battle with Henry Pyrgos for the No 9 jersey, but even as a squad member if not as a regular starter, he clearly has a lot to offer
“I can’t tell you, no,” Groom said earlier this week when asked if head coach Richard Cockerill had offered him the captaincy for longer than just that friendly against Ospreys. “I like to think playing scrum-half there’s obvious leadership connotations in that role. It was a great honour for the coach to ask me to do it, I’m happy doing it, and if I’m asked to carry on doing it that would be great and I’ll keep doing that.”
On leaving the Lions for Edinburgh, he said he was joining “a team on the rise”, and so far at least he has been impressed by how things are going. “It’s been good,” he said. “It’s been in a way nice to come in before the games start and really familiarise myself with the boys and how things work: getting used to the way things are run here, how we go about training, that sort of thing.
“I’ve had enough time to get to grips with how we want to play. To me rugby is a real relational game: you get to know the boys in the changing room, that helps on the field too. So I’m feeling good going into the start of things now.
“I played in the UK before, really enjoyed that – I thought it was a really good challenge for me professionally,” he continued when asked to explain what attracted him to Edinburgh. “Personally too, I’m always up for an adventure and I like living abroad and what comes with that – playing in a new league, new opportunities, new things to experience. Yeah, at the end of my career I can look back one day and say I’ve played in some great teams, lived in some amazing places and put myself in a position to make some really good memories.”
Getting back on track
So precisely how good will the memories be at the end of this season? Neither Groom nor the team as a whole has gone public with a specific prediction about about what they believe they can do in the PRO14, but, after a disappointing 2018-19 campaign which saw them fail to qualify for the play-offs or the Champions Cup, they are confident that, provided they play to their best, they can go a long way in the league.
“Hundred per cent. I don’t see why not. It’s been a real eye-opener to see some of the talent here. It’s amazing: all the Scottish guys are extremely well conditioned. They’re fit, they’re strong.
“In a lot of ways sometimes I feel like we might be holding ourselves back, so hopefully this season we’ll really get guys to express themselves and really gel together. And if we do that, I’m pretty confident we can put ourselves in a great position to do some great things in the competition.”
“I wouldn’t say we’re thinking about where we would like to be after x amount of games or periods of playing – that hasn’t been mentioned at all, and I think that’s the right approach, to be fair. We need to be just really confident in how we play, in what we do, in our processes. It’s a word that gets thrown around all the time, but the moment we start thinking about, as a player at least, things like that [ie season plans] – we can’t have that. We leave that up to the coaches.
“We need to just play the best we can play, and that comes down to focusing on what we want to achieve. We can’t think too far ahead of that. I think that would be a big mistake.”
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Into the Lion’s Den
A combination of Groom at 9 and Jaco van der Walt at 10 would be an ex-Lions pairing, although in fact the two never overlapped in their time at the Super Rugby side. And, while eager to develop an on-field understanding with his fellow-South African, Groom believes it is just as important for him to be on the same wavelength as Van der Walt’s rival Simon Hickey and indeed with his own rival Pyrgos.
“I didn’t know him before,” he said of Van der Walt. “There’s a few things that have carried over from my time and his at the Lions, things that we’ve spoken about here. Yeah just getting to know him, Simon, Henry – the four of us kind of putting our heads together, there have been some really good, constructive conversations. It’s a very crucial position, having a good relationship with your 10, and as the season goes on we’d like to get better and better. We’ve got a good starting point now, but there’s only so much you can do when you aren’t playing games, and a lot of stuff that only crops up in games. Hopefully we’ll get to a good stage where we become telepathic in a way.”
An eye on Japan
Talking in midweek, before the World Cup began, Groom offered some interesting views about how the Springboks would fare – views that are all the more relevant given their 23-13 defeat by the All Blacks in the opening Pool B game. “I am for the first time really heart and head thinking South Africa’s going to win the World Cup. Normally it’s heart. I’m just being really patriotic about it this time around. I think we’ve got a very smart game plan, I think we are well equipped for the conditions there, and I just see us well aligned compared to previous years. The guys playing for South Africa are the best guys and they’ve all deserved it.
“I haven’t been this excited for a World Cup in ages. The Springboks love the underdog tag. We’re sort of there but not there yet, if that makes sense.
“I think if we lose the first game against the All Blacks, we’ll win the World Cup. I don’t want us to lose, I think it’s good for our psyche to be backs against the wall. Then we’ve got it all to play for . . . It will get the ticker going for the boys. There’s a risk we beat the All Blacks first game and it can work against you in a funny way.”