On his appointment to the post almost exactly two years ago, the SRU’s Chief Executive, Mark Dodson, committed to giving Scotland’s two pro teams (Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors) the platform from which to become more competitive in a league where some of European rugby’s biggest names lock horns. Though several criticisms may be justifiably levelled at Dodson during his tenure at the top of Scottish rugby, he has at least made good on his pro-team promise. With increased playing budgets, and the SRU’s recent and controversial drive to recruit “project players” (whereby uncapped professional players from other nations are enlisted to join either pro team with a view to qualifying for Scotland after three years through residency), Edinburgh and Glasgow have been able to make some impressive signings over the past year.
However, while the men from the West have responded in earnest to the union’s improved backing – twice making the play-off spots in the RaboDirect Pro12 and enjoying another excellent season last year under Gregor Townsend – the capital outfit have stuttered badly, ultimately stagnating in the lower reaches of the league. Despite an exhilarating Heineken Cup campaign two seasons ago offering much hope for the following campaign, they failed to record a single win in the same competition last year, taking some crushing defeats along the way (conceding a total of seventy-five unanswered points in consecutive games against Saracens and Munster), and finishing tenth in the league table. This desperately poor season led to the removal of Michael Bradley from his post as Head Coach.
Last week, following a long delay from the SRU, it was announced that veteran South African coach Alan Solomons is to join Edinburgh, filling the role vacated by Bradley for the coming season. Turning 64 this week, Solomons has spent time with several pro clubs in the UK, as well as in his home country, and offers a wealth of experience and guile at the top level.
Solomons’ record at international level is undeniably impressive. He acted as South Africa’s assistant coach under Nick Mallett between 1997 and 2000, during which time the Springboks were crowned Tri Nations champions in 1998, and made history by winning seventeen consecutive test matches. This equalled the record among top tier nations set by New Zealand in the mid-1960s.
However, it is Solomons’ knowledge of the game and heavy involvement at club and provincial level that is of greatest relevance. The South African spent three years at Ulster between 2001 and 2004, with the province going unbeaten at home in the Heineken Cup throughout his tenure, and winning the Celtic Cup in 2003 – ironically, against Edinburgh at Murrayfield. Although these are impressive standalone feats, it is the manner in which Solomons approached his role at the club that bears most significance. He is widely credited with introducing to Ulster a more diligent, proficient and hard-nosed attitude, at a time where the club had yet to fully embrace the professional era.
The coach made this clear from the outset. In an interview with the BBC on taking on the position at Ravenhill, he announced that “It’s important to concern myself with the well-being of Ulster rugby as a whole because what you want is for people to come through the system into the Ulster team itself.”
The change brought about by Solomons in the mind-set and ambition of the team, was further outlined by Mark Blair, a Scot who played under the South African at Ulster for two years, who states in an interview with The Edinburgh Evening News that “Solly instilled a different mentality in the Ulster players.”
Blair is confident that for Edinburgh, “Solly will bring a new level of expectation in terms of performance. That’s one thing he did at Ulster and for us it was a bit of a shock to the system in terms of what everybody thought was a professional approach until he arrived.”
Blair also credits Solomons as having a major hand in the drafting in of young and upcoming players such as Neil Best – a flanker whose performances for Ulster led to a string of appearances for Ireland and a move to Northampton Saints – and Stephen Ferris – who is among the top back row forwards in Europe when fully fit.
In his native South Africa, Solomons has led the Stormers to a Super 12 final, and taken charge of Western Province. He has also handled his most recent position, as Director of Rugby with the Southern Kings, very impressively. Taking the side from their amateur status a mere four years ago, barely patching a squad together to face the touring British and Irish Lions, and bringing them to the pinnacle of pro club rugby in the southern hemisphere – the Super 15 – was no mean feat, and made all the more impressive by the tight budget constraints under which this was achieved. Despite confirmation of the Kings’ relegation from Super Rugby this week, Solomons proved his ability to build and sculpt not only a squad, but a club or franchise itself.
It seems, on the face of it, as though Solomons and Edinburgh are almost a perfect fit for each other. Certainly, if there were ever a club in dire need of a thorough shake-up, then it is the capital side. His brash and forthright comments in the media this week following the Kings’ aggregate loss to the Lions in the Super 15 relegation play-offs are further testament to his strong and outspoken character – the sort of character Edinburgh have lacked of late. With several former colleagues and charges attesting to the fact that the South African will set his sights and standards high, and neither pander to the club’s bigger names, nor fail to disregard promising youth players, there is genuine cause for optimism among a set of decidedly downtrodden and long-suffering supporters.
However, that optimism should be tempered with a measure of caution. During a disastrous few months in charge of Northampton Saints in 2004, Solomons suffered a record-breaking eight-match losing streak, leaving his side just a single point from the Premiership’s bottom spot. Why this spell, arguably the blackest in his coaching career, went downhill so rapidly, and ultimately ended so quickly, is plain to see. The South African attempted not subtle and gradual changes, but a near-wholesale upheaval within the club over a desperately short time period. He blended new recruits and foreign internationals with a side that were already well-established, endeavouring to bring about the speedy restoration of the Saints to Europe’s elite that the board of directors craved.
In short, Alan Solomons has the credentials, the nous, the experience, and the track record to be a success at Edinburgh. It will almost certainly not prove to be a quick turnaround – especially given the state in which the club now finds itself. But, as he has done throughout his career, if granted enough time to shape things to fit his own style, the South African has shown he is capable of rejuvenating sides in the throes of sluggishness and torpidity. The winds of change are beginning to blow at Edinburgh once more – finally, they seem to be gusting in the right direction.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Picture: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images