As the number of individuals following new Edinburgh Rugby coach Alan Solomons from South Africa to Murrayfield began to grow so, too, did the jokes.
For example, from coaching the Southern Kings, one-time Springbok mentor Solomons would now be in charge of the “Northern Kings”. Or how about Murrayfield being renamed “Valley of the Kings?”
But, suddenly, the laughter stopped as Solomons’ new charges, amid sustained pleading from the coach for time to put fresh methods into effect, got their act together in dramatic style. A 29-23 victory over two-time champions Munster in the opening round of the Heineken European Cup last weekend caused ripples around the rugby world and has seen optimism soar ahead of tomorrow’s second pool match away to Perpignan.
Among those to take note was John Allan, the Durban-based former Scotland and Springboks hooker who, through links to the Super 15 side Natal Sharks, took a keen interest in what Solomons did next.
Allan said: “When Kings entered Super Rugby this year, nobody gave them a chance of winning a game. They surpassed most people’s expectations and it was mainly due to a loose forward trio in which the new Edinburgh back row signing, Cornell Du Preez, really stood out.”
Edinburgh’s discovery of the winning touch coincided with the first full appearance of Du Preez, and Allan, part of the Scottish team that contested a World Cup semi-final in 1991, added: “When I look at the great Scottish loose forwards, Cornell sits nicely in the mould of, say, Finlay Calder. Cornell has speed, skill and wins a lot of ball on the ground. He is a ball winner who puts his body on the line and really gets around the park.”
Another major factor, according to Allan, is Solomons’ ability to persuade defence/collision coach Omar Mouneimne and skills coach Phillipe Doussy to join him in Edinburgh, as well as Wicus Blaauw, a Namibian prop forward whom he coached at the Stormers Super 15 franchise. “Solomons is very good – he has done well. He’s a clever man, a lawyer by trade, and at every team he is involved with he thinks first before he talks.
“You will never see him embroiled in any sort of argument or disagreement on anything.
“He is also very clever in who he picks, which is why he is able to take his defence coach and kicking coach everywhere. He works with people that trust him and he gets the trust of the team. His player management skills are very good.
“Alan is clever enough to come in and see weaknesses straight away. When he took over the Kings he was supposedly director of rugby, with New Zealand coaches in place.
“In fact, Alan was hands-on, doing everything. Proof of his ability lies in the fact that although Kings were relegated, their players are being snapped up by other franchises.”
South African players inherited by Solomons at Edinburgh include second-row Izak van der Westhuizen and prop Willem Nel, both previously with the Bloemfontain-based Free State Cheetahs. As an ex-front row, Allan has been particularly impressed by Nel.
“At the Cheetahs, Nel was overshadowed by the Springboks prop Coenie Oosthuizen, but it seems that going to Edinburgh has allowed him to come into his own. Nel scores a lot of tries as he did at the Cheetahs and he can certainly scrummage. These guys bring a mentality where you are taught ways to win at all costs.
“It is not about having a good game, you have to have hunger to win. Even if you have a good game and you lose you are not happy. Rugby is such a religion and they take it very seriously. Winning is everything. Lose and you become an outcast.”
While Du Preez is beginning a qualification to represent Scotland on a three-year residency rule, Allan admits his focus has been on another test of loyalties. His nephew, Tommy Allan, 21, grew up in South Africa but represented Scotland under-20s even though he was born in Italy. Earlier this month the Italians invited the fledgling Perpignan stand-off to a senior training camp and with Allan expected to commit to Scotland, this has created a furore. However, John Allan insists the matter is not cut and dried and that Tommy – his brother’s son – has merely been keeping his options open.
“Ironically, Tommy wanted to play in South Africa, but I told him to go overseas as he is perceived here as foreign and that tends to mean the Springboks won’t look at him,” said John. “It’s not signed and sealed that Tommy will commit to Italy. My advice to him was to play well for Perpignan and get a contract to secure his future.
“Rugby is a career now and careers only happens when you have a senior contract for three years. Italy are showing Tommy a lot of attention and he has an affinity with the country. But he hasn’t said a word because he is focusing on Perpignan and that is the right thing to do. He’d have been crazy not to have a look at the Italian set-up and there is a catch-22 situation at play because if you are picked for a national squad there is more chance of a senior contract from a club.
“However, Tommy knows there are other things to consider, such as your long-term future. It’s still possible Tommy could commit to Scotland.”