AFTER their narrow losses to Ulster in a crunch league match and Wasps in the last eight of the Challenge Cup, Edinburgh’s 28-17 defeat by the Stormers in the URC quarter-finals provided further proof of where they stand as a team at the end of Mike Blair’s first season at the helm.

Good enough to get into the knockout stages of both major competitions, they have also proven good enough to qualify for next season’s Champions Cup. As things stand, however, they lack that extra two or three per cent needed to go from being mere qualifiers to becoming actual contenders.

Blair has got Edinburgh playing some inspired rugby at times, and as well as making key signings such as Emiliano Boffelli has improved just about everyone who was already in the squad by giving them the self-belief to play adventurously. That self-belief has produced some excellent performances over the course of the season, but when they are up against more experienced sides their flaws can be cruelly exposed at times.

That was certainly the case at the DHL Stadium in Cape Town on Saturday night, as captain Grant Gilchrist conceded. “We have to be better if we’re going to win away from home against the Stormers,” the Scotland lock said. “It felt like we did a lot of good things in the game, but we weren’t at our very best. To come here and win we would have needed to be at our very best. 

“It was an accuracy thing rather than heat or effort. I’m really proud of the way the team fought - we just weren’t quite accurate enough or good enough to beat a top-quality side.

“We knew going into the game that one mistake would likely be seven points, and that’s the way it was. We showed fight and spirit, and as captain that’s No 1 for me - that the team has heart and spirit. 

“The other side can be worked on - that’s uncoachable. I’m proud of that.”

Gilchrist is convinced that Edinburgh have improved significantly during Blair’s debut season, but he conceded that the loss to the Stormers showed - like those earlier reverses at the hands of Wasps and Ulster - that there is still a lot of work to be done. 

“We’ve made big strides this season to make the top eight and qualify for the Champions Cup next year,” he added. “We’ve shown a lot of progress under new coaches. 

“But we’ve got stuff to work on, because we’re not here to be plucky losers, qualify for quarter-finals then not win big games. We know that in the biggest games we need to find that extra level, and that’s what we need to work towards.” 

Blair himself continues to adopt an almost Corinthian attitude to his job, always expressing enthusiasm after good games even if his team end up on the losing side. And if he ever indulges in recriminations with his players after poor performances, he certainly does not do so in public.

The head coach’s first campaign may have been made easier by the spirit of liberation that followed the departure of his predecessor Richard Cockerill, but it nonetheless takes a fair amount of courage for a rookie coach to allow his players so much responsibility during games. Radical changes of style can take time to bed in, but it is to Blair’s credit that his players hit the ground running.

“It’s a tough job - that would be my first impression,” he said on Saturday night when asked to reflect on his first season in charge. “But at the same time it’s hugely rewarding. For all those tough days you go through there is always a smile at the end of it, because I’m privileged to coach this team. It’s a team that puts everything in for you. You can’t fault the effort.”

The expectation will be higher next season, and Blair is sure that the competition for a top-eight place will be more intense. But, after such a sure-footed start to his time in charge, he is surely correct to believe that his team is heading in the right direction.

“We’ve got some on-field stuff to continue to work on,” he added. “But in terms of what we’re trying to build at the club, I believe we’re in a positive place going forward.”