Edinburgh’s improbable quest for European Cup glory continues when they face former champions Ulster in a semi-final at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road today.
No Scottish team has ever won the European Cup and capital side Edinburgh are the first team from the country ever to make it to the last four.
So often, being a Scottish rugby fan has represented the triumph of hope over experience. This season was especially grim for followers of a national side that finished bottom of the Six Nations after losing all their matches.
Yet many of the same players who were found wanting when on Scotland duty have been transformed when pulling on their Edinburgh shirts and in the quarter-finals they produced one of the tournament greatest upsets when they beat four-time champions Toulouse 19-14.
Edinburgh’s European form has been in stark contrast to their domestic Celtic League performances, yet no one denies they are in the last four on merit.
“We are a different team in Europe,” Edinburgh and Scotland center Nick de Luca told the Daily Telegraph. “We seem to turn up in a completely different frame of mind.”
One member of the Edinburgh party who will be on familiar territory today is coach Michael Bradley, the former Ireland scrumhalf, who has transformed the fortunes of the Scottish side in his first season in charge.
If Toulouse were taken aback by Edinburgh’s all-round game, with the dynamism of No. 8 David Denton dovetailing expertly with the guile of flyhalf and fellow Scotland international Greig Laidlaw, Ulster are unlikely to be caught cold.
The 1999 European champions have beaten Edinburgh twice in the Celtic League this season and Bradley said: “I guess that makes them favorites.”
Bradley is particularly concerned Edinburgh keep their discipline so as to nullify the goalkicking threat of Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar.
“Pienaar is a quality kicker, as in world-class,” Bradley said of the South African. “[In the quarter-final] Munster made three mistakes which were 51m to 53m from their line, and that was nine points, so we’ve got to be very careful about that.”
For Ulster director of rugby David Humphreys, today’s match offers the chance to move one step closer to creating a new generation of heroes for the Northern Irish province.
Former Ireland flyhalf Humphreys was Ulster’s captain when they beat Colomiers 13 years ago to become the first Irish winners of the European Cup.
“Everyone involved with Ulster believes it is time the constant references to 1999 are put to bed,” Humphreys said.
Having defeated Irish rivals in the quarter-finals, Ulster, if they win today, could be in an all-Ireland final at Twickenham on May 19, if defending champions Leinster triumph away to France’s Clermont Auvergne in tomorrow’s second semi-final.
Leinster will be looking to make it 14 European Cup games unbeaten at Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban-Delmas.
However, the home side are likely to know what they are up against, as Leinster coach Joe Schmidt was with the French club and working as assistant to Clermont boss Vern Cotter when they ended their agonizing wait for a previously elusive French Championship in 2010.
Meanwhile, former Scotland forward Nathan Hines will be looking to join a select group of players who have won the European Cup with two different clubs, having been with Leinster last season.