COACH Michael Bradley will send his Edinburgh Rugby team out into a Heineken European Cup semi-final against Ulster in Dublin tonight with a warning to maintain discipline.
Irishman Bradley is quick to acknowledge that Edinburgh lived dangerously when defeating Toulouse last time out in the tournament with two sin-binnings for technical offences overlapping so that the Murrayfield hosts had a spell down to 13 men.
“We did concede seven points during those sin-binnings and the game could have been over if Toulouse had got into their stride,” acknowledged Bradley, who is calling for the determination that got Edinburgh through to be repeated.
“We are aware of what could have happened through the sin-binnings and will be stressing that our discipline must be good.
“But the resilience of our side this year in the Heineken Cup has been very strong.
“We got through tight matches at London Irish and at home to Racing Metro.
“And when we played poorly away to Cardiff we were able to turn that result around at home.
“It required a last-second drop-goal from Phil Godman for us to win at Racing Metro and a four-try bonus point in the concluding group match against London Irish to get us to the top of the group and a home quarter-final. But we did it and against Toulouse they were unable to score during the last 50 minutes.
“Their final score came on the half hour and during the closing period Toulouse had the ball for two minutes and we had it for 14 minutes. These are all good stats underlining that the opposition couldn’t impose themselves on us.”
One key statistic for Edinburgh emphasises just how influential their back row combinations have been throughout this thrilling cup run.
Fijian international No. 8 Netani Talei stands apart in this competition for carrying the ball a total of 375 metres so far and, to put that into perspective, his nearest challenger is on the 270 metre mark.
Talei’s ability to get over the gain line and put Ulster on the back foot will go a long way to determining whether Edinburgh reach the Twickenham final on May 19 and Bradley, while reluctant to single out individuals, is aware of how potent his back row combinations have proved.
“Netani is playing very well. He started slowly and Stuart McInally rightly got ahead of him in terms of selection then picked up an injury.
“He reacted positively to his opportunity and he has gone from strength to strength in claiming three man-of-the-match awards in four Heineken Cup games.
“It is great to see someone of Netaini’s size enjoying carrying the ball but also having the ability to change direction and off-load.
“On his day Netani is an excellent player.”
Significantly, McInally picked up a ‘most valuable player’ prize when he did start ahead of Talei and there is no doubt that Edinburgh will use pick-ups from the back of their scrum and the line-out tail to try to knock Ulster back.
However, another edge could lie in the fact that the two league meetings saw Edinburgh start without tonight’s half-back combination of Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw, an intriguing and potentially match-winning pairing. “There is plenty of variance in terms of the teams we put out in the Pro 12,” says Bradley, adding, “and the circumstances are different, too. Tonight’s match will be played in front of a 50,000 crowd and there are no league points at stake.
“Rather it is an occasion which might provide one of only two opportunities in a lifetime to get to a final.
“Ulster have had to wait 13 years for the chance to reach another final and Clermont Auvergne (who meet Leinster in the other semi on Sunday) have never been there.
“That’s why there might be a perception in some places that this match is Ulster’s to lose which suits us fine.
“We are aware of that perception and while it is always difficult as a coach to bring the reality of a game home to players it is much easier to do it as underdogs than raging favourites.
“But that doesn’t overlook the fact that Ulster will put us under constant pressure because that is their game.
“We have to play in the right areas all the time and sometimes, like in the Pro 12 against them, we overplayed the ball, made mistakes and were punished.
“That is something we have to be aware of and learn from.”
Skipper Greig Laidlaw also puts it succinctly: “We are underdogs with nothing to lose and that makes us a dangerous team.”
As for prop Geoff Cross, he echoes those sentiments, saying: “The expectation is on Ulster as favourites because of factors like the proximity of Dublin to Belfast and because of the results between the teams in this season’s Pro 12.
“But the underdog tag is something we wear well and there are still strengths and weaknesses to identity and exploit.”
One player Ulster will not have a recent form guide on should he emerge from the bench to join a starting line-up unchanged from the one which beat Toulouse, is second row Steve Turnbull, who harboured nagging worries that undergoing surgery in February on an ankle problem might have ended his campaign prematurely.
Turnbull has instead made a timely recovery to take over from hamstring victim Stuart McInally and says: “I had an op where a tight-rope was inserted through my tibia and fibula in order to keep the bones together as they were splaying apart. I had broken my ankle a while back and the injury had flared up and was starting to bug me.
“For a couple of months after suffering the recurrence against Glasgow at New Year I thought I was getting better but, in fact, I couldn’t run flat out.
“It was in the back of my mind that my season might have ended but, thanks to the medics and our club’s conditioning staff, I have made it back in the nick of time after playing 70 minutes against Cardiff last Sunday.
“If required I’ll play a part in the need to match Ulster physically in order for our back to play and having got this far there is a belief in the squad we can go even further.”
Meanwhile, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin, says: “Edinburgh are one of the form teams in Europe. They beat Toulouse, one of the kingpins of the competition, and you have to respect them for that.
“They have a great spine, their pack is full of internationals and they have an excellent back row. They have international half backs who are very good at controlling the game so it will be a big challenge for us. They are not going to fear coming to the Aviva.”