For Edinburgh and Scotland star Geoff Cross, nothing illustrates his journey into the rugby spotlight better than a fixture with Toulouse.
The 29-year-old is expected to line up at prop forward in this weekend’s eagerly-awaited Heineken European Cup quarter-final at Murrayfield knowing it was the previous meeting between the clubs which helped kick-start his career – and he wasn’t even playing!
Season 2007-08 was a watershed for Cross as he began to settle in at Edinburgh after a switch from his native Borders while putting finishing touches to a medical degree. But “Dr Geoff” was far from part of the furniture when Edinburgh travelled to the south-west of France at the end of a roller-coaster campaign under coach Andy Robinson, which had seen them defeat heavyweight Leinster and Leicester Tigers while suffering an embarassing defeat in the away leg against the latter.
“In fact, I was water boy, 23rd man, with responsibilities for running on and making sure everybody was properly hydrated during breaks in play when Edinburgh last faced Toulouse,” recalled Cross, while insisting it was still very much a worthwhile experience.
Since that January afternoon in the Stade Ernest Wallon, where an Edinburgh squad containing only eight players who are still on the books – John Houston, Ben Cairns, Phil Godman, Steve Lawrie, Andy Kelly, Alan MacDonald, Greig Laidlaw and Ross Rennie – went down 34-10, Cross has appeared in 22 of the subsquent 24 Euro outings, proving that lessons learned were put to good use – especially as he was to gain the first of his 13 Scotland caps just over a year later.
“It was interesting just to travel out there and see what a real French rugby area was like. In Toulouse, I found a very passionate rugby culture.
“An abiding memory is of stepping from the team bus and people waiting to clap you. That is not a sight you come across at every venue, but the passion for rugby in Toulouse instills in them great values.”
So much so that Cross, with 117 appearances in the Celtic League (or equivalent) is able to emphatically declare: “Beating Toulouse on Saturday would be the most significant result of my professional club career.”
So what must Edinburgh do?
Says Cross: “Rugby is a simple game and my role within my team is a very simple role. I don’t think that changes very much, whether it is for Edinburgh or Scotland. I contribute to getting the ball and try to make it easy for my team to keep the ball. If we do that as a team, that will put us in a better position to win the game.”
Former Edinburgh scrum half Rory Lawson has told the Evening News of beating Toulouse for his present club, Gloucester, this season by pouring on the pace.
Cross said: “Pace is one strategy to combat any large physical team. If you have more weight to carry about and you run the same distance, the bigger guys will have more taken out of them.
“That is one strategy that Rory believed worked for Gloucester. The important thing is we put ourselves in position to impose our game on a Toulouse team peppered with individual brilliance.
“Ball retention is very important, too. As margins get tighter and pressure increases in the later stages with the move to knock-out ties, the team with the ball is in a position to exert pressure on the team without.
“But whether it is group stages or knock-outs, you still have to win the games.
“Nothing changes and I believe that when Edinburgh play as well as we can, any team we come up against is beatable.”
Capital fortunes in Europe contrast sharply with domestic form which Edinburgh languish in the lower reaches of the Rabo Direct Pro 12.
Cross says: “The need is to increase consistency and we are certainly happy to enjoy the support of a crowd that is going to be 31,000 strong at least.
“This match is something for pro club rugby in Scotland to celebrate. Reaching the knock-out stages for what is going to be a humdinger is something I’d like to see happen more often. This is a step towards consistency here, too.”
Saturday’s match will be played against a background of both clubs being heavily represented in the Six Nations clash between Scotland and France at Murrayfield in February.
And while insisting it is a different scenario, Cross does acknowledge key understandings that have been developing for some time in the home ranks.
“I am not convinced that international match against France is totally transferable to this context,” he said. “We are talking different teams and I imagine they will play in different ways.
“The similarity is in the same individuals in some cases, but familiarity and understanding of your team’s strengths and weaknesses and how to maximise strengths does help and comes with training and playing together. In that respect I think Edinburgh are pretty well prepared.”