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Edinburgh: Speech therapy

As he rattles through the litany of martial arts and combat sports he tried before devoting himself to rugby - judo, wrestling, Thai boxing, amateur boxing, amateur wrestling, Brazilian jujitsu, ultimate fighting - the suspicion grows that Omar Mouneimne's early life was dominated by his search for a competitive outlet in which the rules allowed him to talk opponents into submission.

Omar Mouneimne is not a man to be messed with    Photograph: SNS
Omar Mouneimne is not a man to be messed with Photograph: SNS

Certainly, a few minutes in the company of the Edinburgh assistant coach does tend to disabuse you of the notion that South Africans are, by nature, a taciturn race. On the other hand, as Mouneimne opens up with his machine-gun delivery, it can be hard to figure out whether the words that pour forth amount to blinding insights or just blithering mumbo-jumbo. In short, is he a genius or a charlatan?

That question may split the Edinburgh camp right now, as some previously weel-kent faces have become peripheral characters since Mouneimne and Alan Solomons took the reins at the capital club at the start of this season. There are those who have thrived within the new coaching regime, Greig Tonks and Roddy Grant being only the most obvious examples, but one or two others have drifted out of the picture.

And yet, Mouneimne and Solomons have unquestionably had a positive influence on a side who were virtually adrift for the whole of last season. Progress may have been slow at first, but as the past few weeks have seen Edinburgh take the scalps of Gloucester, Leinster and Perpignan, then it has to be acknowledged that something positive is taking shape in the Scottish capital right now.

But is it enough? This afternoon, in their final Heineken Cup pool match, Edinburgh will take on Munster at Limerick's Thomond Park, a daunting venue at the best of times, but all the more challenging when the Irish side have the incentive of a home quarter-final to play for. And for all that Edinburgh have taken some significant steps forward this season, they have still shown themselves capable of stumbling backwards into bad habits at times.

Where they have certainly acquired some consistency, however, is in defence, Mouneimne's specialist area. That side of their game was easily the most impressive part of their 27-16 victory over Perpignan last weekend, but it will have to be watertight again today.

Mouneimne - the correct pronunciation is something close to mon ami - is a technician in defence, previously working with the Southern Kings and the Stormers in South Africa and, alongside Nick Mallett with the Italian national side. As colourful and upbeat as he may be, he is an unashamed geek on the subject of what players should be doing when the other team have the ball.

"You have system rules, physicality and concentration," he said. "The ability to concentrate for 80 minutes and defend well comes from knowing your system rules and being physically capable.

"I have a totally different belief to quite a few guys, which is that rugby is not just about attitude and tackling as hard as you can in every game, regardless of your technical level. That's nonsense. The more technically astute you are, the better you tackle and the more often you practise tackling and become less afraid to do it, the more you enjoy it."

Maybe so, but there is no getting away from the fact that the squad Mouneimne inherited five months ago was in such a trough of despondency that polishing up their tackling skills was only ever going to have a limited effect on their overall fortunes. As Solomons and a number of players have testified, Mouneimne's intense character has had an invigorating influence as well.

"The squad was quite down," he agreed. "They probably thought they had heard it all and seen everything, every cliché, every defence system, every kicking system and thought, 'what are these guys going to do?' You always sense that. But when you have been to troubled areas before and dealt with troubled squads and underdogs before, then you know it is always the same. They never believe they can do it and it is your job to show them that they can."

Though not just with a gentle hand on the shoulder. Just before Mouneimne arrived for the interview, a senior Edinburgh player had passed through, carrying the individual coaching notebook which every squad member has to take to team meetings. "Omar will chew my balls off if I don't bring it," he said sheepishly.

The reality sounds a little less eye-watering, but the rules are clear. "If you don't bring your book, you will be fined," Mouneimne acknowledged. The more he speaks, the clearer it becomes that, for all their differences, the ex-lawyer Solomons and the ex-cage fighter Mouneimne make an improbably effective couple.

"Alan [who is 63] is quite an intense fellow himself," said the 39-year-old Mouneimne, "but I do think we complement each other. Alan obviously is a man of advanced years now and he can't be jumping up and down on the field, but he brings a lot of energy. Like any good coach, he knows how to delegate and get other guys to do what he needs done. Alan's always liked teams who are physical and guys that can produce work rate. In a way I'm an attack dog I suppose."

Small wonder that he has such admiration for Grant, who has added a certain snarl to his game over the past few months. Staggeringly, Grant was overlooked by national coach Scott Johnson when the Scotland Six Nations squad was chosen last week, but, although he guards his words, it is clear that Mouneimne has a rather higher opinion of the flanker.

Mouneimne said: "If a guy is aggressive, intense, technically sound in every basic department, well, he is going to be hard to ignore eventually. Roddy is a good pupil and a smart man. He analyses his own game for hours before he comes to chat to me, and he's meticulous about everything that he does."

Edinburgh will have to match those qualities today if they are to have a chance of getting past Munster. The odds are not in their favour. But then, the numbers didn't look too clever before they met the Irish side at Murrayfield three months ago, and they won that match 29-23. More of the same and Mouneimne really will have something to talk about.

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