Edinburgh boost box-office appeal after pulling off Larkham coup
EDINBURGH will announce their biggest signing in six years this afternoon when Stephen Larkham is welcomed on board. The stand-off, who turns 33 at the end of the month, played 95 times for Australia and was part of the team which won the Rugby World Cup in 1999.
The Capital team have just lost Simon Taylor, Rob Dewey and Dougie Hall among others, and will say goodbye to Scott Murray after this autumn's World Cup. They need a big-name arrival to help morale pick up, and hope that Larkham can do that, just as the former New Zealand captain Todd Blackadder did when he joined in 2001.
With some room for manoeuvre in their player budget, Edinburgh also hope to land a star winger either for the start of next season or after the World Cup. They are understood to have narrowed their search down to three All Blacks - Doug Howlett, Rico Gear and Sitiveni Sivivatu.
In common with other European teams in search of international recruits from further afield, Edinburgh will probably have to wait until the composition of the squads for the World Cup is announced before finalising their plans for next season. They already know they will be without their Scotland internationals for a large chunk of their Magners League programme next season, and want to ensure they have quality replacements. If they have to wait until the end of the year to secure talents such as Howlett, however, they will do so.
Whoever Edinburgh sign after today, however, will be hard pressed to match the impact of Larkham, who has been one of the outstanding players in world rugby over the past decade. Although during his early days as a professional he was so withdrawn and taciturn that he was nicknamed 'Bernie' after the corpse in the film Weekend At Bernie's, the Canberra-born No10 soon matured into a commanding presence, and formed a half-back partnership with Wallabies scrum-half George Gregan which set new standards. Larkham made his international debut as a replacement against Wales in 1996, the same year he signed for the ACT Brumbies. He played at Murrayfield, Edinburgh's home ground, in the Autumn Test against Scotland in 1997, scoring two tries in an Australian victory.
By the following year, when Scotland toured Australia, Larkham was firmly established as a key component of a Wallabies side which was steadily and scientifically preparing for the World Cup. When that tournament came around in 1999, the Australians proved to be unbeatable.
Much of that was thanks to their defence, a meticulously organised side of their game which saw them concede only a single try in the six games they played. But Larkham was also instrumental in launching many of the attacks which his team-mates finished off so ruthlessly.
He won his 50th cap in 2002, in the first Test against South Africa, and was again a key player in the World Cup of the following year. Playing on home ground, Australia made their way to the final, but lost to the favourites, England, in extra-time.
Larkham remained a Wallabies regular up to the final Test of 2004, which he had to sit out due to a broken arm. Injury and illness also disrupted his season in 2005 - he missed much of the Super 12 tournament after having a melanoma cut away from behind his left knee, and then again broke his arm.
Compared to early forecasts that a player so slightly built would be injury-prone, however, Larkham has proved remarkably robust. His primary task at Edinburgh will simply be to establish himself as the key playmaker in the back division, but beyond that he can be expected to play an exemplary role in the maintenance of high standards.
Blackadder did exactly that during his time with Edinburgh, first of all by showing how demanding he was on himself, and then by encouraging his team-mates to do the same. Larkham should be able to emulate the former All Black captain and help Edinburgh find their way again.
The signing of such an experienced internationalist will surely come as a relief to the consortium who run Edinburgh. Having lost so many of their best-known players, they have been eager to recruit someone with box-office appeal - not only for the sake of attendances, but also to show that the traffic in Scottish rugby does not have to be one-way, and that talent can come into the country as well as go out. Certainly, persuading someone of Larkham's stature to sign on the dotted line can only help their credibility within the game.
Glasgow, meanwhile, hope they will soon be able to confirm the signings of three internationals: the All Blacks centre Darryl Gibson, the Scotland flanker Kelly Brown, who is expected to move from the now-defunct Border Reivers, and the Samoa winger Lome Fa'atau.
Sean Lineen's team have already secured the services of Hall from Edinburgh, Michael Collins from the Waikato Chiefs, and Chris O'Young from Western Force. Edinburgh were also interested in Gibson, but are understood to have decided not to get into a bidding war for the player with their Scottish rivals.
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