THERE was much of a meaningful nature to take from what was, in Heineken Cup terms, another wonderful but ultimately meaningless finale to the pool ties for Edinburgh on Saturday.
Soaked to the skin by another battering from the heavens – Edinburgh have experienced the excesses of snow, wind and rain in their last three European fixtures – a squad of visibly tired players trooped from the Murrayfield turf heads bowed but much brighter in heart than thepink-shirted Parisian foe they had put to the sword with more greater dominance than the scoreboard suggested.
Edinburgh showed they had learned from their hammering in Paris at the onset of the 2009-10 Heineken Cup and were improved at the breakdown, Ross Rennie fashioning turnovers superbly until he was replaced after 33 minutes with an injured knee – the other one to that which has kept him out for much of the past two years, it was stated afterwards – while the forward pack dominated the set-piece for long spells and had the Stade forwards back-peddling furiously in driving mauls that moved 20 or 30 metres.
Yet, Edinburgh's lack of incision and poor kicking threat coupled with Stade's heroic defence left the hosts at the mercy again of penalty kicks, and Chris Paterson again emerged the hero with three kicks to overcome the French.
Jim Thompson, the ever-impressive wing/full-back who looks certain to be in a Scotland squad this year, had taken the lead from his late grandfather, Bill McLaren, honoured with a minute's applause before the game, by slicing through the Stade Francais defence in only the second minute. It was a great start, but was to prove the first of several promising attacks not turned into points.
Paterson broke his latest record in the 11th minute with a penalty, awarded against Tom Palmer, the former Scotland under-21 and now England cap in Stade's second row, which took him two points past Duncan Hodge's 228 in the Heineken Cup.
Edinburgh attacked another Scot in the opposition ranks, Hugo Southwell, who showed he had the skills and courage to fill in at scrum-half but was regularly under pressure. His fingertip pass and the silky running of fly-half Ignacio Mieres forced the best from Edinburgh's defence and set up the platform for Pascal Pape's try, before Paterson responded with a penalty before half-time for a 7-6 half-time scoreline in the visitors' favour. One Paterson penalty seven minutes into the second half ultimately settled the issue and the effect of the rain was evident when centre Ben Cairns superbly read a Mieres pass but lost the ball as he took off into the wide open Stade half. Edinburgh were sensible and the forwards took it on, Greig Laidlaw, the scrum-half, the epitome of precision decision-making, which rightly won him man of the match, as he and Phil Godman kept Stade pinned in their own half with different modes of attack.
A vicious punch on Scott Newlands by an unidentified assailant forced the No 8 off the field for stitches and Thompson and Godman missed penalty chances in the last ten minutes, but Edinburgh were so in control of the ball that they never looked like losing. Stade, aware of the need to keep the margin of defeat within seven points to secure a bonus point and their quarter-final spot, forcibly manned the barricades.
Rob Moffat, the Edinburgh coach, praised the control of his pack, and Laidlaw, in particular, but acknowledged the work needed to make his team more incisive. "We have got a lot of bright, intelligent rugby players, and we can't fault their effort – they were just about crawling off that park at the end," he said.
"It's easier now to defend in a game, and we were making the running, keeping possession and working hard to do something, and the level of commitment was very high.
"The mauling was good and that is an area we want to develop because people go to ground too quickly these days. Mauls can be useful if you're good at it, not just from lineouts or restarts.
"If there isn't the momentum there then think about setting up a driving maul; we don't do that enough in Scotland. We tend to put our head down, hit someone and go to ground. What Stade do well is move the ball before going into contact, where we still tend to expect contact before we look to move the ball. You could see Stade were that bit more skilful than us, and in horrible wet weather like we've had for our last three Heineken Cup games you need good skills to beat top teams."
This was a good victory to add to those over Toulouse, Leicester, Leinster, Northampton and Perpignan, but Edinburgh's players will not enjoy any more European affairs this year while Stade Francais squad left Murrayfield having secured more Heineken Cup frolics for when the weather lifts. It is a fine line this qualifying and not.
It was within Edinburgh's grasp and they let it slip. The squad missed from most of the campaign key internationalists in Mike Blair – now mulling over a move to Ulster this summer – Jim Hamilton, Allister Hogg, Ross Rennie and Dave Callam, the wild weather arguably worked in their opponents' favour and we should remember that Edinburgh's player budget is less than a fifth of that boasted by Stade Francais.
Moffat's players are left to rue a Bath game they controlled for good spells, but in which they tossed away scoring chances, and an Ulster match always tight but in which they failed to retain possession at crucial times.
The emergence of Laidlaw, Thompson, Rennie, Mark Robertson and Roddy Grant are bright notes, the return of big ball- carrier Hamilton and the elusive Simon Webster similarly encouraging, and the refreshment from this Heineken sojourn must be the motivation it provides a relatively young squad for the remainder of the Magners League and Europe next season.
Moffat added: "All the way through this pool I knew we had a great chance to qualify no matter how Bath or Ulster played. I would have banked on us beating Stade at home, but we weren't on top of our game away at Bath or Ulster.
"The big lesson is that good performances are not enough to reach the last eight in Europe – we have to be right at the top of our game, absolutely firing, to get there, and we haven't been.
"But the season is not over and if we've got it right with the way we've looked after players, and made sure others have had chances to play and gain experience, we'll finish the Magners League with a squad all desperate to play."
Scorers: Edinburgh: Pens: Paterson 3.
Stade Francais: Try: Pape; Con: Beauxis.
Edinburgh: C Paterson; M Robertson, B Cairns, N De Luca, J Thompson; P Godman, G Laidlaw; K Traynor, A Kelly, G Cross, S MacLeod, J Hamilton, A MacDonald, R Rennie, R Grant. Subs: S Newlands for Rennie 33mins, J Houston for De Luca 40, S Webster for Paterson, R Ford for Kelly, both 52, A Jacobsen for Traynor, C Hamilton for MacLeod, both 65.
Stade Francais: L Beauxis; M Gasnier, G Messina, G Bousses, D Camara; I Mieres, H Southwell; R Roncero, D Szarzewski, R Gerber, T Palmer, P Pape, J Haskell, M Bergamasco, J Leguizamon. Subs: M Bastareaud for Bousses 46mins, B Kayser for Srarzewski 50, S Taylor for Bergamasco 52, P Ledesma for Gerber 58, Slimani for Roncero 66, Bergamasco for Haskell 73 (blood).