THIS was certainly a stride forward for Edinburgh, but it will count for very little if they don’t follow it up with another positive showing in their next match at Bordeaux Begles in the European Challenge Cup in four days’ time.
Edinburgh 24-10 NG Dragons
Scorers: Edinburgh: Tries: Visser, Fife. Con: Heathcote. Pen: Heathcote 4. Dragons: Try: Pewtner. Con: Tovey. Pen: O’Brien.
The French side are third in the Top 14 and inflicted a 59-7 thumping upon a Castres team including Richie Gray, John Beattie and Max Evans at the weekend. That result came hot on the heels of a 51-21 success over league leaders Clermont Auvergne seven days earlier.
For both teams, European rugby’s second tier competition will be viewed as something of a sideshow compared to the more pressing concerns of their domestic campaigns – but, as far as Edinburgh are concerned, it is absolutely vital that they maintain some of the positive energy that they managed to generate against the Dragons.
Edinburgh scored two tries and, with a little bit of help from the television match official, they could easily have had three more. They started the game tentatively, with Sam Beard fumbling the ball like a greenhorn within 30 seconds, and despite dominating territory and possession throughout the first half it took the hosts until the 35th minute before they troubled the scorer with the first of Tom Heathcote’s four successful penalties. However, the longer it went on the more self-confident and composed under pressure the players began to look.
There is still an awful lot of work to do, and the nagging concern that the squad contains far too many journeymen and not enough genuine stars to be truly competitive against the top sides in Europe – but at least they started to demonstrate an edginess which has been conspicuously absent for a very long time.
“It was a good feeling in the dressing room afterwards. It was the first time since playing Newcastle Falcons [in a pre-season friendly on 29 August] that we have shown some attacking flair. We managed to move the ball around a bit which was good for me to play in personally,” said winger Tim Visser, who scored the first of Edinburgh’s tries, and was heavily involved in two of their three disallowed scores.
The first of those missed opportunities came after 13 minutes, when Visser released Beard on the left. The Kiwi centre had the foresight to send a well-weighted kick back infield for man-of-the-match Hamish Watson to hack ahead, before Visser rejoined the action like a runaway express train. All he needed to do was dive on the ball, but it bounced when he needed it to bobble, and we were left with the rather undignified spectacle of Edinburgh’s master marksman knocking on over the line.
This mishap may well have reflected the player’s own anxieties after an injury-ravaged year, but he wasn’t prepared to spend too long lamenting what might have been.
Six minutes later Visser collected a wayward Dragons clearance and charged back up field before releasing a pass which looked certain to send Watson over the line, until Matthew Pewtner and Nic Cudd somehow managed to prevent the ball from being grounded.
Two Heathcote penalties seemed like a fairly shoddy haul after all that territory and possession, and when a shocking defensive lapse at the start of the second half allowed Pewtner to touch down under the posts, you couldn’t help fearing that Edinburgh were on the precipice of another humiliating implosion. Fortunately for the home team, Visser was now really in the mood, and his enthusiastic chase of Greig Tonks’s speculative clearance kick paid dividends when he managed to charge down Hallam Amos and collect the ball to score.
That seemed to be the blow which killed this game off as a contest, and it wasn’t long before Dougie Fife was squeezing over on the right after Edinburgh had bombarded the Dragons line for several punishing phases.
Dragons rallied briefly, but Edinburgh finished the match back on the front foot when Heathcote launched a scything attack straight from a scrum. The move was carried on by Beard, before Jack Cuthbert sent Mike Coman burrowing over – but the TMO spotted a knock-on.
That score would have been the icing on the cake for Edinburgh, but they won’t have lost too much sleep on Saturday evening fretting over whether the call should have gone against them.
Ultimately, it was a pretty pleasing afternoon’s work for Solomons’ men, and with Visser beginning to look again like the player who topped this league’s try scoring charts for four consecutive seasons between 2009 and 2013, life could be about to get a whole lot easier.
“I know I can score tries when they are there to take – that has never been an issue – but I was concerned a little bit about the lack of opportunities in recent weeks. It’s frustrating because I live off other people’s successes, I just wait until another guy makes a break and then I finish it off, and if there’s nothing to finish off then that is a concern,” said Visser afterwards.
“But there has also been time for me to work on other stuff that I’m not particularly good at, so my kick-chase has improved enormously and I got the benefit from that today, which was good. Hopefully we can find a balance somewhere so that I can do a bit of both.
“It depends on the opposition as well, and whether you are playing home or away, because last week Ulster were a much more organised team in defence and there just wasn’t the opportunity to spin it wide.
“I got one break from a Greig Tonks offload, and that was lucky. But today we got a lot more opportunities and it’s good to see we’ve got it when they are there.”
Edinburgh: G Tonks; D Fife, S Beard, A Strauss (P Burleigh 69), T Visser (J Cuthbert 77); T Heathcote, S Kennedy (S Hidalgo-Clyne 69); A Dickinson (A Dell 70), R Ford, J Andress (W Nel 40), A Bresler, G Gilchrist, M Coman, H Watson, C Du Preez (T Leonardi 26, W Nel 30-40).
Newport-Gwent Dragons: L Byrne; M Pewtner, T Prydie, A Smith (A O’Brien 26), H Amos; J Tovey (A Brew 58), J Evans (R Rees 64); B Stankovich, E Dee (T Thomas 58), D Way (L Fairbrother 70), A Coombs, R Landman, L Evans, N Cudd, A Powell (H Gustafson 30-40).