Heineken CUP hero Chris Leck is ready to take over the scrum half mantle from Mike Blair if, as looks likely, the Scotland and Lions star departs Edinburgh Rugby this summer.
A stunning 40 minutes from off the bench as Edinburgh booked a place in the semi-finals of the northern hemisphere’s blue riband tournament for the first time by defeating Toulouse 19-14 in front of 37,881 at Murrayfield, represented a coming of age for 25-year-old Leck.
He had been thrust into the front line when early try-scorer Blair was forced to come off with a shoulder injury but rose to the occasion by leading the aerial bombardment which was the key weapon in Edinburgh’s armoury.
While delighted to have played a part in the win against the four-time champions and clearly frustrated at having to withdraw, Blair said: “Coming off was a really hard call to make (but) I got a shooting pain down my neck after somebody hit my right shoulder and left me without any power in it.” The question of the Scotland star’s future plans was off-limits, however. “I can’t answer that,” said Blair when the subject was raised by the Evening News.
However, Leck was more forthcoming when emphasising the collective nature of a win which capped an immense 16-year journey from when Edinburgh went to Dax at the start of their Euro involvement in 1996 and lost 69-12.
Said Leck: “I’m sure every club in France is trying to get hold of Mike. He is a quality player who, wherever he goes, will bring a lot to their team.
“I am ready to pick up the baton (but) you never know if summer signings are coming in or if rumours are true.
“If Mike does leave someone could come in to replace him who is just as good.”
Such a remark was made in the context of taking nothing for granted and Blair did appear to leave the door open for remaining in his home city despite the fact that French newspaper L’Independant included him at the weekend in a list of four scrum halves who are under consideration for a move to Perpignan; the Evening News understands cross-Channel discussions have intensified.
Blair said: “To see the crowd out there was a picture I had not envisaged happening with Edinburgh Rugby.”
Whether that amounts to a re-assessment remains to be seen but Blair was succinct in putting the achievement into perspective, saying: “It is a massive boost for Edinburgh. We have struggled in the league where we’ve had guys away at World Cup and Six Nations and it has been hard to build momentum. It is just fantastic that we are able to get ourselves into this situation but with three weeks to the semi-final we will enjoy the moment.” Asked if the win was his proudest moment outwith internationals, Blair said: “As a team the achievement is the biggest.” Certainly, he may have been unable to stay the course through injury but Blair didn’t need long to demonstrate an eye for an opening.
Less than two minutes had elapsed when Greig Laidlaw spotted full back Yannick Jauzion out of position and hoisted a hanging kick that was spilled under pressure from Dave Denton by winger Timoti Matanavou for the ball to spin free. “Sometimes the ball lands in your hands and that’s what happened,” said Blair, who was unconcerned by a referral to the video official Derek Bevan who, as a referee back in 1990 had made a contentious decision involving Gavin Hastings and All Black Mike Brewer which probably cost Scotland a famous win on New Zealand soil.
“I knew I had touched it down. I still looked at the video to see if somebody else’s hand had touched it. We looked at tactics and how to play against Toulouse, their back three in particular. Matanavou is an incredibly impressive runner but he was someone we thought we could put pressure on. We got him into the game early and we got our chase right.”
That the tactical strategy had been carefully conceived was echoed by Leck, who said: “It was maybe not the best game of rugby in the world to watch but I think we were clinical and played the right game against them and came out with a win.
“Even though the full back Jauzion is usually a centre we knew he was good in the air but we challenged him and the wingers in the air and came out on top. We recognised we could get some good gains from putting the ball in the air, box-kicking (chipping over scrums and line-outs into no-man’s land) when we needed to and also bombed them which produced the try.
Another feature of the Edinburgh performance was the mature way in which they closed out proceedings having fallen 7-14 behind by conceding eight points when Allan Jacobsen (obstruction) and Ross Rennie (deliberate offside) were in the sin bin almost simultaneously to go 16-14 in front approaching the final play through the immaculate kicking of Greig Laidlaw.
Ultimately the win was sealed by a final-kick penalty from Laidlaw who had to be sure that if he had missed the ball went dead to deny a break-out chance. However, Leck had every confidence in his half-back partner, saying: “Everyone knew the kick was going to go over with Greig kicking. He doesn’t miss many. Words can’t describe how happy the whole team are, everybody involved with Edinburgh.”
It was Leck’s tournament debut for Edinburgh having had a brief taste of Europe, coincidentally against Toulouse, for previous club, Sale Sharks..
“It was the best experience of my life so far to get a win against the quality of players we were playing in Toulouse.
“Now it is off to Dublin’s Aviva Stadium for a semi-final (against Ulster) and we’ll give it our best crack.”
Blair’s try was his fourth in the European Cup and was converted by Laidlaw but by the time Jacobsen and Rennie served their time Toulouse had hit the front with three penalties by Lionel Beauxis being followed by an unconverted try from Fijian Matanavou as a consequence of an ill-conceived kick upfield when short-handed.
Remarkably it was to be Toulouse’s last score as Laidlaw dropped only his second goal as a pro just before the interval then added a trio of second half penalties to deservedly earn man-of-the-match honours.
Talk about a captain leading from the front!
Edinburgh: Try: Blair. Con: Laidlaw. Pens: Laidlaw 3. Drop-goal: Laidlaw.
Toulouse: Try: Matanavou. Pens: Beauxis 3.
Edinburgh: T Brown, L Jones (K Traynor, 33-35), N De Luca, M Scott (J Thompson 11-17), T Visser, G Laidlaw (captain), M Blair (C Leck, 40), A Jacobsen (Traynor, 60-64), R Ford, G Cross, G Gilchrist, S Cox, D Denton, N Talei (R Grant, 70), R Rennie (S McInally, 70). Subs not used: A Kelly, J Gilding, P Godman.
Toulouse: Y Jauzion, T Matanavou, F Fritz (C Poitrenaud 51), Y David, Y Donguy; L Beauxis, L Burgess (JM Doussain 65), J-B Poux (D Human 52), W Servat (C Tolofua 73),C Johnston (Y Montes 60), Y Maestri (G Lamboley 70), P Albacete, J Bouilhou (Tolofua 48-56; Y Nyanga 60), L Picamoles (G Galan, 47), T Dusautoir (capt).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).