Since defeating Toulouse in the quarter-final, the past few weeks have been a bit crazy. The real confidence we’ve taken from the Toulouse victory is that not only have we beaten one of the best teams in the world, but we did it with tactically-smart rugby. We kept it tight and, in a sense, defeated them at their own game. That is truly satisfying.
Looking back on our Heineken Cup campaign this season, most of our games have been pretty tight affairs, none more so than the Racing Métro fixtures. The home game, where we came back from 20-points down to win in the closing stages was incredible. It showed the kind of rugby that we can produce when we have to go for it, that kind of “panic rugby” where we have to score tries brings out the best in our attacking players. That Friday night at Murrayfield was a big emotional rollercoaster, we went so far ahead early on and then felt as though we’d lost the game, only to snatch it back.
We knew after the drama of the first Racing match that travelling to Paris was not going to be easy, against one of the richest clubs in the world with a huge squad. But we managed to keep it tight. Neither side was exceptionally clinical, but then Phil Godman came off the bench to slot that drop goal which just gave us another incredible lift.
Before the tournament we felt like we had a good group and therefore a strong chance of getting out of the pool stages but, that being said, reaching the quarter-finals was not something Edinburgh Rugby had done for so long. We were optimistic certainly, but we never expected anything like this.
Momentum throughout the pool stages, going right back to facing London Irish in Round 1, has been key to our success. It’s common knowledge that you have to win your home games to do well in the Heineken Cup, but to go away to Reading and pick up an away win in our first match was really special, giving us that boost.
To start the competition with two good wins means you approach it with a completely different mindset, because you’re looking forward to getting back to a great tournament like the Heineken Cup when you know you’ve been successful so far. That has been a major difference for us this season in comparison to previous years, when we haven’t picked up those first two wins and lacked that crucial confidence.
Although as a team we’ve excelled, certain guys have certainly stood out. Netani Talei fully deserves his nomination on the European Player of the Year shortlist and Greig Laidlaw should be there with him because his kicking has been so important for us. David Denton as well has been a real breath of fresh air.
Having the international players back for the Heineken Cup has been vital too. People ask how we can be 11th in the RaboDirect Pro12 and yet in the Heineken Cup semi-final. Our league position has come down to losing our best players during the Rugby World Cup and the Six Nations, whereas when it comes to the Heineken Cup, we have been at full strength and able to show what we really can achieve.
On Saturday, because kickoff isn’t until late on I’ll be feeling the nerves slightly during the day and on the way to the stadium. Once you get to the stadium and you can feel the ground under your feet that all goes away. I won’t listen to any music but I’ll joke around with someone like Nick de Luca, before all of the work you’ve focused on in training takes over and you prepare yourself for the game ahead.
We won’t necessarily feel the pressure ahead of Ulster, purely because so many people expect them to win.
The truth is that we might never reach this stage of the Heineken Cup again, and we have to take our chances. After all, it’s been eight years since the last venture into the knockout stages.
We are the underdogs but, from our perspective, this is the biggest thing that has ever happened to Edinburgh Rugby and we’re fully aware of that.
by Tim Visser