A TRY by winger Lee Jones with two minutes remaining handed Edinburgh a stunning pool victory and a Heineken Cup quarter-final match with Toulouse back at Murrayfield in April.
Michael Bradley’s side defied the pre-tournament predictions that had the Scots rank outsiders in a pool featuring Cardiff, London Irish and the super-rich Racing Metro 92, finishing in style with a convincing win over a strong London Irish side earned despite the late loss of three key internationalists.
Nick De Luca had been 50/50 during the week after suffering a head knock in the win at Racing Metro and he was withdrawn on Saturday, but David Denton, the powerful back row, followed yesterday with a hamstring and Chris Paterson was withdrawn just 30 minutes before kick-off after a persistent groin injury flared again.
John Houston and Jim Thompson stepped into the back line and Stuart McInally took the No 6 jersey, and all three played crucial roles in the success. Edinburgh supporters were further taken aback by the top stands around Murrayfield being closed off, but as more than 10,000 poured into the ground – creating a new European record for the club – 15 minutes before kick-off the gates were opened and excited supporters flooded upstairs.
They were to be delighted as Edinburgh vied with Cardiff, playing at home to Racing Metro, to become pool champions. The Scots superbly controlled the first-half and manufactured two good tries to lead 20-6 at the break, then withstood an onslaught in the third quarter with hard-working, aggressive defence before finding extra energy to score two tries in a frantic final five minutes.
Edinburgh set the tempo from the start with their big men – Netani Talei, Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford and Sean Cox - providing a great physical lead in attack, and half-backs Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw playing tactically astute rugby. Laidlaw almost put Matt Scott in for the opening try after just four minutes with a grubber through, but after his opposite number Adrian Jarvis kicked the visitors into a 3-0 lead he tried again and this time it came off, with Tim Visser outpacing the Irish cover to touch down. Laidlaw converted and the atmosphere began to warm.
Collapsing virtually every time, the scrums were a ridiculous waste of energy, referee Peter Fitzgibbon awarding penalties one way then the other, but Edinburgh’s lineout was good, for the most part, with McInally and Grant Gilchrist working well with Cox.
Geoff Cross, a strong ‘man of the match’ contender, produced a superb scrum on the tighthead side that drove up England prop Alex Corbisiero and earned a penalty which Laidlaw stroked between the uprights.
With 21 minutes played, the 10-3 scoreline was replicated in Cardiff, but then Racing notched a try in Wales and Irish pulled back a penalty through Jarvis. Edinburgh’s defence was sound, however, and when a solid period of Irish pressure was ended by a turnover forced by Roddy Grant, and a good kick-chase forced a kick straight to touch from Delon Armitage, only the bounce of the ball into touch deprived Visser of another chance.
Talei stole an Irish lineout near halfway and from a Jones charge, Irish were penalised for not releasing in the tackle, allowing Laidlaw to extend the lead to 13-6 eight minutes from the break.
Edinburgh kept the foot to the floor, however, and after the door was closed on Visser on the left, good leg-drive by forwards and ferocious Irish defence on their line ended with the ball being thrown, loosely, wide to where Jim Thompson was able to pick up and dive over. Laidlaw again converted and they took the 20-6 lead into half-time.
With Racing leading Cardiff at half-time, Edinburgh were halfway to a home quarter-final. The next stage in the process was dousing the inevitable Irish fire at the start of the second half, as the visitors threw everything to find a route back into the game. The hosts achieved that with a good blend of aggression, pace and composure in a near ten-minute period defending their own line as Irish skipper Bob Casey led a side with great talents across its XV.
Twice Irish were given penalties and they ran one and scrummaged the next, but their concerted period in the home 22 ended when Thompson thumped Armitage and the ball went loose for Edinburgh to clear.
The next step for Laidlaw’s men was to get back on the front foot and not only secure victory but grab the bonus point and a chance of topping the pool. They lost another lineout before finally uncovering some field position. From there Edinburgh did score a tremendously-worked ‘try’ through Visser, but referee Fitzgibbon ruled it out for a forward pass from Grant to Scott, which replays showed to be highly contentious.
It did help to swing the momentum, however, as the game moved into the final quarter, and with Cardiff now 33-30 up, but still one try away from a bonus point, the message was sent on to the field that Edinburgh needed to push on again and score two more tries.
They conceded one to Jonathan Joseph, from his own chip through, which exposed a lapse in Edinburgh’s wide defence, before launching their support into a new stratosphere in a denouement that crackled and fizzed.
Laidlaw kicked Edinburgh into the Irish 22 with a penalty and ‘Heineken Man of the Match’ Talei turned it into five points, going blind after a series of charges and rucks from the initial lineout, and Laidlaw made it seven. Victory assured at 27-11 up, now it was all about a fourth try and a bonus point.
Houston almost put Jones in with five minutes left, but a defender got a finger to his pass. Two minutes later Jones did grasp it after Steve Shingler knocked-on, Talei broke off the resultant scrum and Jones finished off with a great dive into the right-hand corner. Laidlaw converted again from the touchline, for a faultless kicking display that further underlined his claims to a Six Nations place, and there was terrific jubilation around Murrayfield when Thompson kicked the ball high into the stands to bring the final whistle.
Crowds quickly huddled around TV monitors in Murrayfield to watch the dying seconds of the Cardiff match, where the Blues laid siege to the Racing line, pushing for the fourth try that would have sent Edinburgh to Leinster in the last eight, but the French defended superbly to deny them and another great roar met another final whistle.
Edinburgh have enjoyed some luck in the pool matches, but they earned every bit of their victory in this game and, backed by an ever-growing crowd, should look forward to Toulouse with confidence.