Rugby: Edinburgh coach Bradley gets chance in Heineken Cup against London Irish

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Coach Michael Bradley finally gets the chance to complete the missing piece in his rugby CV tomorrow when leading Edinburgh into action at London Irish.

As a scrum half Bradley, who turns 49 years old next week, captained Ireland in the course of gaining 40 caps, shared in a Triple Crown triumph and appeared in two World Cups, while his coaching career has included some notable highs with Connacht in the second-tier Amlin Trophy.

On one occasion his Connacht troops even put 49 points on French side Dax, who continue to cast a dark shadow over Edinburgh, having inflicted the biggest-ever defeat on Auld Reekie’s finest, by 69-3, back in the early days of tournament participation.

A visit to the lion’s den that is the Madejski Stadium, Reading, however, marks the start of Bradley’s association with what is widely regarded as Europe’s premier domestic competition and arguably the best club event in the world for a man who hung up his boots in 1995, just as the European competition was getting under way.

Acknowledging that inside track has been a while coming, Bradley made clear his intention of making the most of this opportunity to have an influence, saying: “It’s a big tournament and the hype surrounding it is great. It’s bigger than the Amlin and potentially the premier club competition in the world.

“So, to get the opportunity to coach a quality side like Edinburgh Rugby with the talent we’ve got is, for me, a great challenge.”

Bradley even goes as far as to confirm that Heineken involvement was part of his reason for uprooting from native parts to take the reins at Murrayfield.

“It was an attraction,” he confirms, adding: “But, first and foremost, I am a huge supporter of how Edinburgh Rugby play the game and they type of player they produce indigenously in Scotland and the way these players can come through and do something special on the park.

“The challenge will be to bring that sort of skill level to the competition backed up by a stronger defensive mindset. That’s where we’ve got to.”

If the competition is new then the Reading FC stadium is familiar territory for Bradley, who visited in 2008-09 with a Connacht side who finished runners-up to London Irish in an Amlin Challenge Cup group.

Since then, he has continued to keep a close eye on his country’s exiles and says: “London Irish are quite aggressive in defence which is one of their trade marks.

“They also have a big, big pack who will look to put us under pressure so we’ll have to counter that.

“We haven’t seen so much of it this year but their counter-attack play has always been exceptional and while [Delon] Armitage not playing due to suspension doesn’t do any harm. They have other big attacking threats like [Shontyane] Hape with [Joe] Ansbro potentially coming back and [Tom] Homer at 15, from where his kicking can be dangerous.

“Having visited the Madejski I know the in-goal areas are tight but the pitch itself is not narrower than we are used to so we’ll be ready.”

Bradley has still to display his hand selection-wise but with Chris Paterson battling a groin injury, that could mean extended involvement for Jim Thompson at full back.

Among the Edinburgh contingent to be included for all six sectional games last season, Thompson has plenty of experience to offer.

He says that it is vital Edinburgh make a winning start for the first time since 2005-06 when Wasps were edged out at Murrayfield.

“It’s the premier competition in Europe and pretty much knock-out rugby,” says Thompson, adding: “If you lose a couple of games you are out the group; the incentive is to test ourselves against the best players in Europe.

“Getting the springboard of a win is massive, all the more so because Treviso had won four games on the bounce and scored 50 points against Newport Gwent Dragons immediately before we went out there and knocked them over.”

In fact, a 22-11 scoreline represented Edinburgh’s biggest away win since April 2009 and Thompson added: “Fingers crossed we can take that on. It is hard going away from home and winning but we stuck to our game plan and everyone did their bit.

“[Former colleague] Ross Samson wasn’t giving much away when we spoke this week but I know the pitch is in good nick for us to try to fly the flag for Celtic rugby.

“They might think that the Rabo Direct Pro 12 league is not as good as the Aviva English Premiership but it is up to us to prove otherwise. That said, London Irish have some world-class players.

“For example, stand off Dan Bowden pulls the strings and is a class player,. Homer is a very good goal kicker and Hape is an England centre.”

The teams last met in August last year when Edinburgh won a pre-season friendly 19-17 at Murrayfield notable for the debut of a Scottish second row who could well be in line to make his first Euro appearance tomorrow.

Grant Gilchrist, 21, recalled that encounter, saying: “That was the very first time I had pulled on an Edinburgh jersey but from being really nervous I remember getting on the pitch and really loving it.

“For a while after that I didn’t get much game time but this season it has all come my way.

“I get excited about watching the Heineken Cup on television sitting at home. To turn out would be a dream, something surreal, in fact.

“Actually, I’ve noticed that London Irish play a bit differently to last season when they tended to be a wide team. Now they tend to be more direct.

“They try to get go-forward before going wide but still have dangerous players in their back line.

“We are going down there with a bit of confidence and looking for a win.”

Meanwhile, London Irish coach Toby Booth has still to decide on whether to unleash Ross Samson against the team he left over the summer.

But in pondering his options regarding retaining a player who debuted in the 24-24 draw at Leicester last week, Both makes clear his admiration, saying: “Ross went really well especially defensively. He spoke very well too. He was very impressive on how he influenced proceedings around him.

“He held his nerve in what was a very difficult situation and difficult place.

“We were very pleased with him. He showed some nice touches and he passed the ball very well. To get on the outside of people you need people who can pass wide and fast.”

Booth acknowledges that Samson is desperate to face his former team-mates at Madejski Stadium, but added: “He has left that behind.

“He is more interested in where he is going. The cameos he has played he has enjoyed and he is developing into a good player.”

In Heineken meetings Edinburgh and Irish are level at 1-1 from the 2002-03 campaign.

Booth adds: “Edinburgh are very expansive scorers and you need to contain that and play as quick as you can. They do get a bit stretched.

“We know only too well that you can’t score 40 points every week and concede none because sometimes you shoot yourself in the foot.

“They have a massive attacking threat and we need to be very respectful of that.

“They have a good running nine and ten (half backs) and good power runners around them too. It will be a stiff challenge.

“We need to improve on our set-piece from last week and maintain the same level of defensive determination.

“If we can do that and be a bit more frugal with the penalties we give away we will give ourselves a big chance.

I don’t think you can read too much into Edinburgh’s previous form because like a lot of the celtic teams their focal point is the Heineken Cup.

So irrespective of what their league form is like, they have a Scottish international front row and a lot of quality players.”