David Denton and Tim Visser recall day when Edinburgh broke records in Europe
“I think there is an embarrassing photo of me celebrating Mike Blair’s try,” is David Denton’s first comment when asked to recollect on that famous afternoon seven years ago when Edinburgh beat French giants Toulouse in front of almost 38,000 at Murrayfield.
The picture in question is duly published but readers will no doubt be more forgiving in their appraisal of a then 22-year-old back-rower expressing joy at a try which would propel Edinburgh into the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, Europe’s premier club competition, for the first and only time in Scottish history.
There is double the chance that could be repeated this weekend as both Edinburgh and Glasgow face last-eight ties this weekend, with Murrayfield set to break the UK record for a European quarter-final as ticket sales, at last count, soar past 32,000 ahead of this Saturday’s 12.45pm kick-off against the two-time European champions Munster.
Edinburgh previously held the record for the largest crowd at this stage of the tournament when 37,882 people turned out for their match against Toulouse in 2012. English giants Saracens, who Glasgow travel to on Saturday, surpassed that figure the following year when 37,888 attended their tie with Ulster at Twickenham.
Another man involved that day was Tim Visser, who looks back on it as a special memory, even if he didn’t get a try on this occasion.
These were the BBC Alba days when viewers could be forgiven for thinking “Visser” was Gaelic for try, so prolific was the 33-times capped Dutch-born try machine.
“I remember it was a nice sunny day after a long winter and the huge crowd really gave the boys a lift,” recalled Visser of the 19-14 victory over the French giants.
“It was a strange season as we didn’t do so well domestically but seemed to rise for the European games. There was a crazy game against Racing in the pool at home which I think we won 85-84 [it was actually a mere 48-47] and then we had the return match in Paris when Phil Godman’s last minute drop goal won it.”
Visser is the perfect raconteur to put into words the strange enigma that is Edinburgh’s tantalising glimpse of reaching the pinnacle of European club rugby. Since the game went professional in 1995 it is a well worn tale that Scotland has struggled to keep pace, with Saturday’s visitors to the Capital a shining reminder.
While the Munsters and Leinsters have thrived in the ultra-competitive European environment, Scotland’s pro clubs have only reached the knockout stages three times before this weekend. Edinburgh lost away to Toulouse in 2004 before beating them eight years later in front of a crowd that is almost ten times the average gate.
Under Irish coach Michael Bradley, now in charge of Italian side Zebre, Edinburgh had a shocker, finishing second bottom in the Pro12 table. Europe was a different story, however, as they topped a pool which also included Cardiff and London Irish. Blair scored the early try while Greig Laidlaw, then playing stand-off, scored the rest of Edinburgh’s points.
“It was a strange time but, personally, I loved it,” said Visser. “We played a fun brand of rugby and that season were able to rest guys for the big European games. We had forwards like Chunk [Allan Jacobsen], Dents [David Denton] and Ross Rennie, who liked to throw the ball about, so as a winger you got lots of ball.”
Denton, who is currently at Leicester Tigers and recovering from a head injury, also looks back on the day fondly.
“There were a lots of us who were in our first year as professionals. Myself, Tom Brown, Matty Scott, Gilco [Grant Gilchrist], Rambo [Stuart McInally] so we were pretty fearless.”
Toulouse had four European titles under their belt that day, twice the number Munster bring across the Irish Sea, and Visser is confident Edinburgh can get the win.
“I’d put my money on them,” said the Harlequins man, who is on the comeback from a knee injury. Visser scored 14 tries for Scotland but has “no regrets” about his decision to retire from international rugby last May. He admits he would have loved to be involved in the mayhem of Twickenham a week past Saturday, though, as Scotland scorched back in an epic 38-38 classic.
“Of course I would, that’s my kind of game,” said the 31-year-old. “But no regrets, when you know it’s time to move on, you know and that was my time.”
Visser is looking forward to seeing Darcy Graham, who scored two tries at Twickenham, progressing on the international flanks he used to prowl so voraciously.
“I thought he was brilliant,” continued Visser. “I was watching the game in a pub in London. Obviously at half-time it wasn’t good and I just wanted to sink into a sofa and get swallowed up but when Scotland came back I found another Scottish guy in the bar to jump around with.
“I’ve not been in a squad with Darcy before but he came in to train with Scotland when I was there and I thought I’d love to see him go in the international game. And clearly [Scotland coach] Gregor [Townsend] agrees.
“People get fixated with size and physicality in rugby these days but he grew up in Hawick so he knows his rugby and he’s doing a great job. I hope he does again on Saturday.”