WITH Matt Scott returning north after two years impressing for Gloucester in the English Premiership, and with Mark Bennett fully fit and raring to go after missing the first half of his first campaign with the club due to an ACL injury, there was a fair bit of excitement at the start of this season about Edinburgh being able to field an international centre partnership which would give the midfield some serious bite.
But it didn’t quite work out as planned. Bennett lasted until just 19 minutes into the second game of the season before being stretchered off with a ruptured hamstring and is not expected back before the Six Nations, while Scott managed six matches before picking up a concussion which has so far failed to clear (although head coach Richard Cockerill said earlier this week that he is hoping to have the 28-year-old back in the next couple of weeks).
Losing such an accomplished pair was undoubtedly a set-back, but as so often happens with injuries in rugby, the slamming shut of one door allows another door to swing open. Chris Dean and James Johnstone have grabbed the opportunity with both hands, starting alongside each other in the numbers 12 and 13 jerseys during an impressive December in which the team achieved back-to-back victories over both Newcastle Falcons and Glasgow Warriors.
Their aggressive but disciplined defence was a key factor in the team managing to limit the number of tries conceded during those four matches to just five, and also pressurised Warriors into offering up two interception scores in the Murrayfield leg of the 1872 Cup.
“It’s been pretty good,” reflected Dean. “I’ve known James since I started at school and it’s good fun playing with him. We know each other well, played a lot of sevens together and we just enjoy getting opportunities out there.
“You need to know each other’s strengths, which is built through consistency of playing with each other, and also the work we put in through the week. We spend a lot of time practising scenarios in defence and we pride ourselves on being really hard to play against.”
Dean has been at the club since switching from the Scotland Sevens programme at the start of the 2014-15 campaign, while Johnstone followed that same path just over three years later at the beginning of last season. They are aware that they were brought in as squad players, but the attritional nature of modern rugby is such that any successful team is going to rely almost as heavily on the back-up as they do the recognised stars.
And one thing Cockerill has made clear since arriving in the Scottish capital just over 18-months ago is that reputations count for zero – every player has the chance to make themselves first choice.
“We’re both open to the fact that we’re not the stars on the squad sheet but we enjoy getting out there and doing our jobs well, and if we do that the team benefits,” said Dean.
“It has probably been like that every year I’ve been here, they’ve signed guys and I’ve managed to nose my way through at some point,” he continued. “That’s just how rugby is, it’s a professional sport and new guys are signed. You just need to adapt and keep improving yourself. You can’t get stuck in a rut of thinking: ‘I’m not going to be playing this year‘. You just have to keep training hard and things come your way if you play well.”
Both Dean and Johnstone were rested last weekend when the Southern Kings were in town, and the boys who took their place did pretty well in a 38-0 victory – but the pair will be back in harness this Saturday at the Stade Mayol, when Edinburgh aim to achieve an historic double over French giants Toulon in the Champions Cup.
Dean came on as a replacement and scored the bonus-point securing fourth try when Edinburgh were convincing 40-14 winners when the two sides met back in October, but taking the three-times European Champions on in their own back yard is a whole new level of challenge. However, the 24-year-old believes that he and his team-mates have earned the right to believe they can get a result.
The Scottish side are currently four points clear at the top of pool five with three wins out of four games played so far.
“It’s great to be in a position of strength and actually going for something – it’s not just a case of going to experience playing in Toulon,” he insisted. “We’re going with a real purpose to put ourselves in the best position for the following week against Montpellier.
“We’ve obviously talked about them being a rock star team, but a collective beats an individual and that’s a big emphasis for us – that our systems, our work-rate and our physicality for each other will beat their individuals. And obviously playing in the Stade Mayol, it’s a loud crowd and they thrive off the noise, so we’ll try and keep them as quiet as possible.”
Playing to the team’s strengths
While it is the pair’s defensive heroics which have received the plaudits in recent months, it would be unfair to characterise them as lacking ambition with the ball in hand.
“We’ve got a fantastic back three and our next step as a team is developing a game-plan to involve them as much as possible,” said Dean. “It’s something we’re working on week to week.
“I guess some games dictate that. [Against the Kings last weekend] the back three touched a lot of ball whereas in the Glasgow and Newcastle weeks they were flying off the line to cut down our space, so we had to find another way to win, and it was through our defence that we did that.”
So, the desire is there to expand Edinburgh’s attacking horizons, but don’t expect to see Cockerill’s men throwing caution to the wind this weekend.
“You get people asking why we can’t score more tries and telling us we need to add that to our game,” said the centre. “Well, I’d rather win by snuffing the opposition out of the game and frustrating them, than give them opportunities in games when they have players who can score from the length of the field.
“Toulon are a team who are going to thrive off opportunities and broken play, similar to Glasgow. Their players love those opportunities. We’re going to go there and certainly try and limit that as much as possible, but also identify opportunities for ourselves if they arise.
“It’s the way we play, it’s the way Cockers [Cockerill] wants us to play, and at the moment it’s working. I don’t think we’ll go off script too much.
“I think we’ll go out there with confidence in the game-plan that has worked recently,” he concluded. “The main thing is getting the win to put us in good stead for Montpellier at home [next Friday].”