IT WASN’T pretty, it certainly wasn’t enjoyable and it wasn’t everything Edinburgh should have taken from the game with a four try bonus point slipping through their fingers – but it was a success, and so in the final reckoning this should count as another sign of progress by a team which couldn’t buy a victory this time last year.
Scorers: Edinburgh: Try: Tonks, Nel, Du Preez; Con: Leonard 2; Pen: Leonard 2. Zebre: Try: Iannone, Sarto; Con: Orquera 2; Pen: Orquera 3.
This result moves Edinburgh up to seventh in the table, although the Scarlets, Cardiff Blues and Treviso could all overtake them depending on how results go today.
There was a depressing familiarity about the way Edinburgh started both halves brightly to establish strong positions but then failed to put their opponents to the sword. To say they lack ruthlessness might be over simplifying the situation because they still hung on for victory in the end, but against more clinical opposition they would have paid a heavy price for their lack of intensity at key moments.
If we ever needed a reminder of why Edinburgh should not be playing their home games at Murrayfield then this was it. The hosts were shorn of all their front-line internationalist and they were playing a struggling Italian outfit with a smattering of recognisable faces but no real superstar, so it was always going to be a tough sell to potential spectators – but at least in a suitable venue there might have been something approaching an atmosphere.
The arrival on the pitch of the two teams was met with a polite ripple of applause, and the volume level in the stadium very rarely got to a point where it drowned out the noise of the players communicating with each other. If professional rugby is ever going to take off in Edinburgh then matches need to be an occasion, and 3,156 supporters in an open-plan 67,144 seater stadium is never going to achieve that.
This is, of course, a long standing complaint – but it is worth revisiting because without public pressure there doesn’t seem to be any real appetite from the decision makers at Murrayfield to put serious leg work into finding a credible alternative venue.
Of course, the Edinburgh players are used to this and, despite an early Luciano Orquera penalty for the visitors, they initially set about their task of continuing their team’s revival under Alan Solomons with commendable determination.
Harry Leonard had missed an early opportunity to put his team ahead with a long-range penalty, but the stand-off more than made up for that slight miscue a few minutes later when he picked out Dougie Fife hitting the line at a fine angle in the lead-up to Greig Tonks’ score in the corner.
Willem Nel rumbled over from close range and Leonard slotted the conversion to put the hosts in a promising 12-3 lead with less than half an hour played, but during the last ten minutes of the first period the wheels came off the Edinburgh bandwagon in a fairly alarming fashion.
First, Leonardo Sarto ran over the top of Ben Atiga to establish the field position and momentum for Tommaso Iannone to sneak over for a try under the shadow of the posts. Then Jack Cuthbert dollied an easy catch to hand Zebre a scrum on Edinburgh’s 22.
And within a few plays Sarto was bursting past Fife on the far touchline to grab an unlikely lead for the Italians.
The break could not come quickly enough for Solomons and his squad, and whatever was said at half-time seemed to initially do the trick, with Leonard stepping forward to reduce the gap to just two points with a penalty three minutes into the second half, and after withstanding a brief period of Zebre pressure Cornell Du Preez squeezed over in the corner to put the capital outfit back in the lead.
It still wasn’t particularly impressive but at least there seemed to be an element of composure – even if some of the tackling was worryingly sloppy compared to recent standards.
A Leonard penalty from directly in front of the posts meant Edinburgh were more than a converted try ahead, but they knew they really needed a four try bonus point before they could categorise this game as a bona fide success.
Instead they found themselves staring down the barrel of an embarrassing defeat, when they conceded two late penalties to Orquera, which reduced the deficit to just two points, and they then found themselves pinned back deep inside their own quarter for the last ten minutes.
Orquera snapped a 30 yard potentially match-winning drop-goal that flew far too close to the right post for the home team’s liking. The little fly-half then launched another effort from around 45 yards out, and this time Sean Kennedy charged it down.
But still Edinburgh couldn’t activate the pressure release valve – and it was only an injury time knock-on by Zebre that saved their blushes.
Edinburgh: G Tonks; D Fife, J Dominguez, B Atiga, J Cuthbert; H Leonard, S Kennedy; W Blaauw (A Dickinson 50), A Lutui (J Hilterbrand 68), W Nel, G Gilchrist, I Van Der Westhuizen (S Cox 40), T Leonardi (R Rennie 68), R Grant, C Du Preez.
Zebre: D Berryman; L Sarto, T Iannone, G Garcia, G Venditti (D Odiette 68); L Orquera, B Leonard; S Perugini (A De Marchi 68), D Giazzon, D Christolini (D Ryan 72), Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (M Van Vuren 68), F Cristiano, E Caffini, S Vunisa.
Referee: L Hodges (Wales)