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THAT WAS THE SEASON THAT WAS

2003-04 season review



The match programme for the recent Edinburgh-Glasgow game at Meadowbank featured end-of-season reports from all and sundry. Seasoned cliché spotters were delighted to see that most deployed the classic "rollercoaster" metaphor to describe the year gone by at Edinburgh Rugby. And with good reason. Even this column, which prides itself on the liberal use of the hackneyed line, would struggle to find a more apt reflection of the Gunners' 2003-04 campaign.

Among the highs was, of course, that extraordinary win over current European champions, Toulouse at Meadowbank in December. No other team has so far beaten them in the Heineken this year and, with all due respect to Wasps, no-one will. They are so far ahead of the rest on and off the field that they are in a league of their own. The Gunners pack fronted up to les toulousains in the scrum; the Hines-Murray boilerhouse scored identical touchdowns; and the Chainsaw sealed the win with a triumphant wave and the injection of pace that he always seems to find when a try for himself is in the offing.

That would have been enough for one season. But there was more. Home and away doubles over Munster and Leinster; a Celtic Cup final appearance at Murrayfield; five wins out of six in the Heineken pool; and an historic first appearance for a Scottish side in the European quarter-finals. At the turn of the year, Edinburgh were deservedly ranked sixth in Europe as a result. The continent's Press, even in London, sat up and took notice. The Gunners were acknowledged as being well worth their place in the Heineken's last eight, and are now breaking into the ranks of Europe's elite performers.

Throughout the season, when the Gunners were firing on all cylinders, they were a joy to watch. They ran the ball from everywhere, and threatened to score from anywhere. No less importantly, they had one of the League's most effective defences. The intelligent lines and pace of Derrick Lee earned him ten touchdowns to lead the club, ahead of the Brendan Laney's seven, and Hugo and Simon Webster's six scores apiece. The Chainsaw's 163 points led Edinburgh's overall scorers. Hugo's brilliant "try from the end of the Earth" against the Ospreys in March won the try of the season, but the big winger/full back scored just as good an effort against the same opponents at The Gnoll. And in the pack, the ball-playing ability of Allan Jacobsen saw the mighty Chunk notch four touchdowns, with the PL favourite looking increasingly like a worthy successor to the great Tom Smith in tight and loose. An amazing 26 players scored tries during the campaign.

A number of young guns joined the old hands in various national squads, and Edinburgh were also well represented in the national Under-21 squad. And there were international debuts for Tom Philip, Ali Hogg, and Andrew Dall during the season. The success of the youngsters while the internationals were Down Under in the World Cup proved to be a double-edged sword. They took the club to the top of the Celtic League and into the Cup final - an achievement whose magnitude was perhaps not recognised at the time. But the Gunners were hit hard during the Six Nations as a result when even their erstwhile reserve players found themselves in the national squad. They were that good.

The debate on the unfairness of the current League structure raged long and hard on the www.edinburghgunners.org.uk chatroom during the spring, as the club plummeted down the table. Like Leinster and Munster, Edinburgh's final position did not reflect their true worth. But fans and players could take some solace in the announcement that there will be a Six Nations break in the League next season, and in the performance of the youngsters and club players who stepped into the breach. Both of these developments will ensure that the Gunners emerge from a trying three months as a stronger squad.

This season did not see any silverware come to London Road, but with next year seeing fewer international absences in a real home-and-away League, plus an end of season Celtic Cup, as well as Europe, Edinburgh can remedy that next year. The knockout format of the Celtic Cup could suit their freewheeling style particularly well.

And it remains a young group of players. Of the current 32 man squad, half are still under 25 - 12 were born in the 1980s, with a further four born in 1979. The peak for many of them is some years away yet. Happily, it looks unlikely that there will be wholesale personnel changes in the close season, despite the SRU's financial difficulties. Most of those players who were out of contract have re-signed, or seem on the brink of doing so. And the season ended with the excellent news that Uncle Todd - who looked rejuvenated after his injury lay off - will don his boots again next season.

So, much progress on the pitch. But, equally importantly, there has been a great deal of that sort of thing in the stands too. As the pro-team and Edinburgh District machines were brought together in one unified organisation, the Edinburgh Rugby Supporters' Club was born last summer. Under the charismatic leadership of Howard McKenzie - and with the dedicated grafting behind the scenes of the Committee, other volunteers, and Edinburgh Rugby's backroom staff - from a standing start, a Clubroom, website, popular away trips, and successful social events were delivered in the inaugural season. Whereas before, people tended to turn up to games and disappear at full-time, now more and more people see Friday nights as a social night. New friendships have been made; the diehard travelling support continues to grow; and folk who started the year as complete strangers now meet on a regular basis to mutter darkly to one another about Welsh referees called Nigel - and most referees of other nationalities and various names, for that matter.

The players have sensed the change too. Not just in the two 5,000 crowds who came to see the Ospreys and Leeds Heineken games at Meadowbank, or the 12,000 or so home fans who made the trip to Murrayfield for the Cup final, but the 300 who travelled to Toulouse and Leeds, and the committed bunch who made the voyage to south Wales or the four provinces of Ireland for the bread and butter games. When the squad received a standing ovation after their pre-match warm-up from a travelling support that consistently drowned out the locals at Headingley, there was a real feeling that something special was afoot. The players always say how much they appreciate the support they receive at home or on their travels, and the supporters value the chance to talk to their favourites in the Meadowbank Clubroom or a far-flung bar. And this is only the beginning. There is much still to do.

The Supporters' Club voted sparkling Simon Webster - who also holds the world record for the shortest membership of the Lotus Elise Owners' Club - as man of the season, with Todd Blackadder and Derrick Lee close behind. Matt Dey scooped the young player of the season, ahead of Ander Monro and Ali Strokosch. For what it's worth, the highly arbitrary joint editorial/ERSC man of the match cumulative league saw Messrs Blackadder and Hogg finish joint top on four match awards each, with Brendan Laney and Allan Jacobsen close behind on three.

But every player in the squad grew in experience, and many made massive strides. Of the youngsters, editorial gold stars for particular brilliance go to Andrew Kelly, Simon Cross, Hugo, Ali Hogg, Ali Kellock, Tom Philip, Matt Dey, and Ander Monro, with Ali Strokosch making a late run for honours. Of the grizzled veterans, Joel Brannigan's much-improved scrummaging rightly earned him a call-up to the national squad, as did Jackie Joiner's quietly effective play in the centre. And there were gasps of amazement and widespread requests for sharp pinches across the District when Derrick Lee's usual sparkling form was, for once, actually recognised by selection for the national squad.

While Gunners fans will be fervently hoping that the vast bulk of the squad will remain intact for next term, nevertheless, the end of the season brings the end of several illustrious careers:

Marty Leslie left us late last year, despite Edinburgh Rugby's efforts to sign him up for the Six Nations period. Those who followed the club in its earlier incarnations will know just how important he was in setting the foundations for the success that we are beginning to enjoy; on some occasions winning games virtually single-handedly. The twitching in sympathy during the World Cup has been criticised. But you always knew that when Marty was twitching, he was up for it. Invariably that involved a touch of skulduggery, the winding up of the enemy, and a high class performance in the back row. He will be much missed.

Equally, Graeme Burns has been around since the game went open, and has been a great servant to the club. Another internationalist and thoroughly nice guy, his slick service and tactical kicking were particular features of his game. Happily, his experience seems likely to be put to good use in a coaching and outreach role with the club.

The Supporters' Club is now working on plans for next season, and hopes to keep the social momentum going through the summer. Get in touch through www.edinburghgunners.org.uk if you would like to get involved. In the meantime, enjoy your summer, and we will see you for what is now the traditional season curtain-raiser at the Mansell Cup at Goldenacre in August. The foundations are being laid on and off the field for future success. Be part of the team.